Sir Keir Starmer, QC, MP, introduced his Victims of Crime Etc. (Rights, Entitlements and Related Matters) Bill into the Commons on Tuesday 20 October 2015. The Bill, which has yet to be published, would make provision for various matters. In particular, it would:
- Outline the duties and responsibilities of the Victims’ Commissioner in relation to the Victims’ Code;
- Require victims’ services plans for each police service area;
- Establish a duty to report suspected child abuse by those working in “regulated activities”;
- Create a code of practice on the recording of allegations;
- Provide for a right of appeal by victims against a decision to cease a criminal investigation;
- Set standards for the review of open or reopened homicide cases; and
- Make provision about court procedures relating to vulnerable victims and witnesses.
The former Director of Public of Public Prosecution’s Bill was backed by a cross-party group of MPs, including Sir Edward Garnier, QC, the former Solicitor-General, and Caroline Lucas, the Green MP. The full list of supporting MPs can be found here.
Sir Keir argues that the Bill is necessary because there is, apparently, a “growing consensus” that the criminal justice system does not serve victims well. He cites by way of an example that victims of “personal or sexual violence … lack the confidence to come forward and report crime, lack adequate support if they do so, and face an unacceptable ordeal in the court room if their case gets that far” (HC Deb, 20 October 2015, c843). He argues that his Bill would address this problem by legislating to provide that the “Code of Practice for Victims of Crime” become enforceable and that the Victims’ Commissioner be given greater powers.
Sir Keir’s aims are laudable. However, one might question both the necessity and practical impact of such legislation.
Firstly, over the last few decades, there have been great changes in the courts’ and prosecutors’ approaches to victims. Across the criminal justice system, the emphasis is now very much that the procedures of the traditional adversarial system be adapted to the needs of victims. For example, see the range of special measures that automatically apply in relation to sexual abuse complainants.
Secondly, a key reason why victims might feel abandoned during the criminal justice process is the general lack of resources available to the branches of the criminal justice system. The CPS, the courts and the police have had and will continue to have significant funding cuts. HM Courts and Tribunals Service is already meant to provide support services to victims. Without additional funding, these services are invariably limited. Legislation will not alter this; a change of government policy will.
The vindication of the rights of victims should, of course, be a part of the criminal justice process. Sir Keir’s plans to put victims’ rights on a statutory footing might prove beneficial. However, this is a sensitive area and, in particular, we should not forget the rights of defendants. Coincidentally, we were reminded about the rights of defendants by Alison Levitt QC, Sir Keir’s former adviser at the CPS and his current colleague at Mischon de Reya.
On the same day as Sir Keir introduced his Bill Ms Levitt was reported in The Guardian saying that there should be a presumption that individuals accused of sexual offences should retain their anonymity until charged. Currently, news organisations are free to name those under investigation (such as the late Lord Brittan), subject to the laws of libel and contempt of court.
To reiterate, the funding issue is crucial. Without sufficient support from the Treasury, the criminal justice system will let down victims and defendants alike. Recent budget cuts – following sustained cuts over the past decade – will only make matters worse. As we discussed in our blog 'Sexual offences on the increase whilst police budgets sink' in the context of sexual offences allegations, the police and the CPS are struggling to deal with their caseloads. Resources, as always, are key.
Sir Keir’s Bill will now proceed to its second reading in the Commons, scheduled for 4 December 2015. Without Government support, however, it may not proceed beyond this stage.