This blog appeared in the Independent on 20/11/19.
Almost all of us have been affected by crime at some point in our lives. Whether through personal experience of a crime or being reminded by terrible acts in the news, crime can have a devastating impact on people, making them feel unsafe and anxious.
In fact, as many as 8 in 10 (84 per cent) of us suffer worse mental health after experiencing a crime, and this pattern is the same regardless of the type of crime involved. Yet, despite this, too many victims are failed by the criminal justice system at a time when they are most in need of support.
The majority of victims say that the justice system does not meet their needs, and victims lack legally enforced rights in their dealings with the police, courts and other agencies, with many not receiving the right information, help or support to which they are entitled.
Particularly vulnerable victims of crime, such as people with disabilities and mental health problems, are entitled to ‘special measures’ to ensure they are treated with dignity and feel protected as they give evidence in court. Yet, often, the provision of these measures is patchy at best.
Victim Support regularly work with people who are not offered key protections because of these failures
Victims are often left in the dark about the progress of their case. During investigations, nearly half of victims (42 per cent) do not receive important updates about their case, including, for example, whether the suspect has been arrested or released on bail.
Giving evidence over a video link to court is one way to ensure vulnerable people do not come face-to-face with the offender. As part of our research, we interviewed one woman who had suffered from harassment and was experiencing mental health problems. As is too often the case, she could not, in practice, use this measure. She told us:
“The judge complained that they couldn’t hear us very well because the video link was poor. The judge then insisted that I went in person which, of course, was something that I didn’t want to do.”
In this case, the victim reported worsened mental health as a result of the stress of testifying in person.
Victims of crime also have the right to make a Victim Personal Statement in which they can outline the impact the crime has had on them. In theory, it enables their voice to be heard in the court process and helps the court take the impact of the crime into account in sentencing decisions. It is also an important opportunity for the offender to hear the consequences of their actions first-hand, which can be invaluable to some victims. However, our research found that over half of those eligible were not offered the chance to make such a statement.
It should not be like this. Victims already have rights, so they should receive them. We need to see a culture shift within the whole justice system so that supporting victims stops being an optional guideline and becomes a legally enforceable right.
Victims have been promised a Victims’ Law by the major parties since the 2015 election, but little progress has been made since then.
The next government must commit to bringing about this positive change at the soonest possible opportunity. Victims deserve nothing less.
Diana Fawcett is chief executive of Victim Support. If you have been affected by crime, you can call our free and confidential Supportline 24/7 on 0808 16 89 111, regardless of whether you report the crime to the police. You can read our manifesto, Make it right for victims, with four proposals to improve, support and strengthen the rights of victims of crime.