Justice Secretary unveils Victim Strategy
The Justice Secretary recently set out how the Government will ensure better support for victims of crime in its Victim Strategy document.
Their vision is for a justice system that encourages more victims to speak up by giving them the certainty that they will be understood and supported throughout their journey, regardless of their circumstances or background. The strategy document sets out the support that victims should receive at every stage of the justice system. For example
- When reporting the crime to the police
- When providing witness statements
- On receipt of the CPS decision on whether to prosecute
- When appearing in court or in front of the Parole Board
- Details of special measures that are available to a victim when giving evidence
The Victims Code
The support to which a victim of crime in England or Wales is entitled to, is set out in the Victims Code (‘the Code’) which came into force in 2006. The Code sets out minimum entitlements and services that a victim should expect to receive.
The latest Crime Survey of England and Wales estimates that one in five adults experienced crime in the year ending March 2018. However, a recent study showed that only 20% of victims were actually aware of the existence of the Code. The Government intends to improve this figure through this new strategy.
- The key aspects of the strategy include:
- A revised Code which will focus on better awareness and implementation.
- The creation of a short, user-friendly overview of the Code in hardcopy and electronic formats to be more accessible to victims.
- ‘Victims’ Law’ which will underpin the Code. Consultation on this is to begin early 2019.
- Potential establishment of an Independent Public Advocate (IPA) to help bereaved families following a disaster. This was set out in the Conservative Party Manifesto and confirmed in the Queen’s Speech.
- Review of the entire Criminal Justice Compensation Scheme (CJCS). This is to be completed to reflect the changing nature of criminal acts, and improve financial support for victims.
- Measures to improve communication and support.
- In order to achieve these ambitions the Government has committed to increase spending from £31 million in 2018 to £39 million in 2020/21, specifically for the improvement of services for victims of sexual violence and abuse, greater support for families bereaved by homicide and improving court environments (with new victim-friendly waiting areas and an emphasis on accessibility for the most vulnerable).
One of the main reasons for the new strategy is that despite crime having fallen since the mid-1990s, the types of offences being committed are changing, which has had an effect on the type of support that victims need. Fraud and cyber offences now make up nearly half of all crime in England and Wales. Additionally, more victims are coming forward to report crimes that have traditionally been under-reported. For instance, reported sex crimes have risen by nearly 25% in a year.
In addition, the strategy aims to improve communication with victims so that they are aware of the Code and the support to which they are entitled during the process from when the crime has been committed until long after court proceedings have ended.
Criminal Justice Compensation Scheme (CJCS) Review
One of the key aspects of the strategy is to review the CJCS. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has made a number of recommendations about changes to the CJCS and its operation for victims. The review will look at issues to include:
- Time limits for applications – the current time limit requires that applications be made by a person over 18 as soon as practicable (and/or no later than two years after the date of the incident). It is suggested that victims of child sexual abuse disproportionately delay reporting such crimes and making applications for compensation, thereby missing out on compensation.
- The ‘same roof’ rule – this rule stated that no compensation would be paid in relation to any crime of violence that occurred before 1 October 1979, if at the time of the incident the applicant and the assailant were living together as members of the same family. This rule is to be abolished and consideration given to the previous failed applications.
- Unspent convictions – the scheme automatically excludes an award if the applicant has an unspent conviction which resulted in a specified sentence (custodial sentence, community order or youth rehabilitation order). It is suggested the rules disproportionately affect vulnerable victims of child sex abuse who may have offended in response to being abused/exploited/groomed.
- Crime of violence – the scheme sets out what constitutes a crime of violence for the purposes of assessing entitlement to compensation. It is suggested that this definition should be broadened to include exploitative behaviour, such as grooming.
- Terrorism - the terrorist attacks of last year left people with serious life-changing injuries and brought to light questions about the suitability of the scheme in providing support to victims of terrorism. The review will consider and clarify scheme eligibility, entitlement to, and appropriate levels of any such award.
In order to develop this new strategy the Government has engaged extensively with victims, victims’ groups and representatives, academics, frontline services and criminal justice agencies, as well as considering relevant evidence and research. The idea behind this review is to empower victims to tell their story and to improve their relationship with the criminal justice system.
Reported cases of abuse have risen steadily over the past few years which can, in part, be attributed to the changing attitudes in society, how the media reports claims of this type, legal funding and an increase in claimant solicitors advertising a speciality in this field. The improvement of support services to victims could see an increase in criminal proceedings as lack of support could be one of the factors why the offence wasn’t reported/pursued in the criminal courts earlier.
A rise in criminal convictions could in turn have an effect on the number of civil claims and/or CICA applications brought. A victim is able to bring both a CICA claim and a civil claim at the same time, however if anything is awarded in the civil aspect, this must be repaid to the scheme.
Victims may be more inclined to use the scheme as it can be an easier process in comparison to the civil courts. Additionally, if a victim has gone through a long and traumatic criminal case, they may not want to repeat this by having to give evidence in a civil claim and therefore the paper-based CICA scheme would be more appealing. Although the awards made are on a tariff system and are often lower than what could potentially be awarded in a civil matter, in some instances the CICA process can take just as long as a civil claim.
In practical terms the review appears very positive for victims, as long as they are aware of it. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be adopted by the various services involved in the justice system and how the Government intend to enforce the use of it. Without all the services being on board the strategy may fall short of its aims and given the low figure mentioned earlier (in relation to how many victims are aware of the Code), there may be no measurable impact on numbers of civil abuse claims as a direct result of the new strategy.
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