This is a guest blog by Peter Garsden , leading child abuse lawyer.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has announced government plans to introduce new laws aimed to protect the rights of victims in England and Wales.
With the right of victims of crime to directly confront their offenders in court to be enshrined in law, the Government’s commitment to victims will also include:
- Establishing a new nationwide Victims’ Information Service by March 2015, and developing this into a comprehensive service that allows victims to access the information and support they need.
- Strengthening the protection for vulnerable victims by making the experience of going to court a better one.
- Increasing transparency and accountability, to ensure criminal justice agencies are held to account for the services they provide to victims.
- Introducing a Victims’ Law to guarantee key entitlements for victims.
- Lawyers involved in any sexual offence case will have to undergo specialist training, especially if the trial involves the cross-examination of a child.
- Developing plans for paying compensation to victims up front.
On announcement of the new plans, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: “This Government has already significantly improved services and support for victims, investing more than ever in the help they are offered, but we are also the first to acknowledge that more can, and should, be done. Our criminal justice system can be daunting, and victims, especially the most vulnerable, can find it traumatic and difficult to know where to turn to for advice and support. For the first time we will create a system that puts the highest emphasis on victims’ needs and sets out their rights clearly in legislation.” Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan MP said: “This announcement looks like it’s been cobbled together on the back of an envelope, in the dying months of government.” Mark Castle, chief executive of Victim Support, has welcomed the suggestion that more effort would be made to help vulnerable witnesses give evidence without having to be in the courtroom. He said “Children and other vulnerable victims and witnesses should not have to face the trauma of giving evidence in a court building unless they choose to. Our witness service teams, who work behind the scenes in court, see every day just how distressing it can be for them, especially if they are the victim of a violent or sexual crime.” Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove has welcomed the plans but has questioned how they would differ in practice from the existing victim’s code. “A new law cannot be used as a quick fix,” she said. “Recently, we’ve seen how the abuse of victims in Rotherham was covered up, I’d like to know how a victims’ law would put a stop to this dismissive, ignorant and collusive behaviour.” She went on to say that she would like to see the government going further by introducing a victim care manager, to avoid victims being pushed from ‘stranger to stranger’ to find out what is happening to them.
What does leading child abuse lawyer, Peter Garsden think about the proposed ‘Victims’ Code’?
- Obviously, anything to help the victims of abuse through the Court Process has to be applauded. There are already schemes in different parts of the country but quality of service tends to vary from area to area.
- Many abuse support groups with years of experience already exist throughout the country. They could easily fulfill the need to support victims through a criminal trial. Many of them are much in need of funds.
- Why train a whole new army of victim supporters at a large cost when one could engage with existing groups to provide the service with much more experience on how to engage with the victims of abuse.
- Will the victims be referred to specialist lawyers? Victims often have the right to make a civil claim against not only the abuser, but also his/her employers, or those in charge of him/her, or even Local Authorities if they owed the victim a duty of care. There does not seem to be any recognition of such possibilities. Often, the only thought is the perpetrator, who may be without funds, particularly if he/she has had to spend large amounts of money on legal fees.
- The CICA (Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority) is positively biased against using lawyers to assist victims and angled towards people dealing with their own cases. The victims of abuse are vulnerable and in need to special help. At one time APIL (Association of Personal Injury Lawyers) tried to engage with them because of the seeming bias. It was suspected that Lawyers were being discouraged because they were responsible for driving up the level of awards. The rule has now changed such that until the CICA will even communicate with lawyers, the victim has to sign a form of authority unlike any other type of claim, where it is accepted that if a lawyer says he is acting for a client further correspondence starts without needing a form of authority.
- How will this new scheme affect the CICA system of compensating the victims of crime? Presumably it is an alternative but quicker scheme? Why duplicate? Would it not be better to invest more funds into the CICA which now has a considerable backlog due to austerity cutbacks to staff and administration?
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