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The draft Victims Bill fails to deliver for victims

The draft Victims Bill fails to deliver for victims

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3 min read

The government’s draft Victims Bill is intended to amplify victims’ voices and put their needs and rights at the heart of the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, my Justice Committee colleagues and I have found this draft Bill to be a case of good intentions not matched by well thought through legislation. 

Its aims are laudable: to improve the treatment of those who put their faith in the criminal justice system – comprising the police, CPS, courts and prison and probation service – in the expectation of seeing those that have wronged them brought to justice.  

It borders on the farcical that the bill fails to properly define who counts as a 'victim'

All too often we hear of victims who have already faced loss, injury or trauma, becoming disillusioned by the system and these agencies, even to the point of giving up. Sometimes that weariness stems from going months without hearing any news from the police or CPS about what is going to happen, why no one has been caught and charged. In too many cases victims do not report the crime at all. We were told how vulnerable victims struggle to get the support they need, with service providers routinely overstretched and under-resourced. These issues are exacerbated by the ongoing problems in the courts with year-long waits for cases to come to trial. 

It’s absolutely right that the government wants to turn this around. So, it was disappointing for the committee colleagues to pore over this draft legislation, only to find it coming up short. In our newly published report, we take a constructive approach to the draft bill, recommending changes that will help it deliver the improvements for victims that the government said it desires.  

The bill would place four overarching principles into statute, outlining how victims should be properly treated by criminal justice agencies: that they should be provided with information, be able to access support services, have the opportunity to have their voices heard, and to challenge decisions made.  

We heard from ministers that placing these principles in statute would lead to improved delivery of services by criminal justice agencies by making them enforceable by law, rather than existing as unenforceable guidelines that are currently found in the Victims’ Code. But we found these principles to be so broad and permissive that we concluded they would serve little, if any, legal purpose. And what if the police, CPS or others fail to comply? The bill includes no form of redress for individuals who are let down. The way the bill is drafted also places the onus on individuals to claim their rights, which assumes they know that the Victims’ Code exists. Taken together we found that this step is unlikely to improve agencies’ compliance with the Victims’ Code.   

It borders on the farcical that the bill fails to properly define who counts as a “victim”. As currently drafted, all “witnesses” to crime, even petty theft, would fall within the bill’s remit, whereas a murder victim’s next of kin would not. 

The draft bill will also change the mechanisms for oversight of the delivery of the Victims’ Code, enhancing the role of police and crime commissioners while diminishing that of the Victims’ Commissioner. While myself and colleagues welcome the introduction of local monitoring through the PCCs, this should not be done at the expense of national oversight by the Victims’ Commissioner, whose role should be strengthened and put at the heart of the bill. 

Lastly, ministers have been unable to convince us that new funding would be made available to make the government’s ambition a reality, despite the shortfall of resources that has led to, or exacerbated, many of the problems in the criminal justice system that this bill seeks to fix. 

 

Bob Neill, Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst.

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