Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Victim's Right to Review is definitely a good thing

I was on Radio 5 live at 7.05am this morning - when no doubt most of you were just waking up - to air my views on the newly announced "Victim's Right to Review". I was saying it was a good thing, and well overdue, whereas Helen Simms from Pannone was putting the case for the accused, whom, she feared, would suffer the uncertainty of whether or not he/she was going to be prosecuted hanging over his/her head for longer than was fair.

The new procedure is quite simple.The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has today launched a new policy that enshrines a victim’s right to request a review of any decision taken by the Crown Prosecution Service to not charge a suspect or to stop a prosecution. A 3 month consultation starts today

To quote from the press release

“The criminal justice system historically treated victims as bystanders and accordingly gave them little say in their cases. The decisions of prosecutors were rarely reversed because it was considered vital that decisions, even when later shown to be questionable, were final and could be relied upon. This approach was intended to inspire confidence, but in reality it had the opposite effect. Refusing to admit mistakes can seriously undermine public trust in the criminal justice system.

“It is now recognised by the criminal justice system that the interests of justice and the rights of the victim can outweigh the suspect's right to certainty. This is already reflected in the Code for Crown Prosecutors, but more needs to be done to correct this historic imbalance and ensure that the people affected by our decisions can hold us to account. Victims’ Right to Review is a major step in the right direction. It recognises that victims are active participants in the criminal justice process, with both interests to protect and rights to enforce.”

Any victim of crime, which includes bereaved family members or other representatives, can now ask the CPS to look again at a case following a decision not to charge, to discontinue proceedings or offer no evidence. Those entitled to an enhanced service under the Victims’ Code will also be offered a discussion with a prosecutor about the outcome of the review.

Mr Starmer continued: “These reviews will be an entirely fresh examination of all the evidence and circumstances of a case. If a charge is justified and there are no legal barriers to prosecution, the mistake will be put right. Making fair decisions and delivering justice is the priority.”

The point is that we have acted for hundreds if not thousands of victims of child abuse over the last 20 years. There comes a point in every victim's life, when it feels right to start talking about what happened to him/her. The appropriate time may be 30 to 50 years after the event. So distressing is the memory that it often remains a shameful secret for many years. During that time they can tell no one. All the painful thoughts and memories turn inwards, and cause harm to the victim.

So courageous and difficult is their decision, that it often unleashes torrents of pent up anger and hunger for justice. So when they approach the police, and are given hope that their story is going to be believed rather than rejected as a lie, it rekindles their faith in the system of authority, which previously they may have distrusted.

So imagine how the victim feels when they are told by the Crown Prosecution Service that they don't have a case, or that their hope of punishing their abuser has been dashed. They suspect foul play, corruption, or just give up again feeling deflated.

It is important that victims of abuse are heard and believed. Often they have tried to complain as a child, and been disbelieved, or called liars. In the worst cases, they may have been severely punished for speaking out, and/or been threatened by their abuser with terrifying fates. So having tried to complain once, they decide that it is not worth telling anyone about what happened to them. They thus remain silent for the next 30 to 50 year, or perhaps take the sad memories to their grave after, usually, leading a dysfunctional life.

Thus the journey of complaint in later life is a rocky one, and fraught with difficulty. Under the old regime, the victim's only route to overturn a decision not to prosecute was judicial review, which is expensive, and with cuts in Legal Aid, unlikely to receive funding.

Will the victim be entitled to an advocate at public expense to express his/her wishes? Doubtful.

To be fair the published guidelines do contemplate a fairly speedy process, so the thoughts of the accused remaining in limbo for too long are, to some extent, mitigated.

So this review process is to be welcomed as it gives the victim a voice. They often end up at our door, frustrated because they have been unable to achieve the justice they deserve and seek. We often cannot help them, but suggest the alternative route of a compensation claim. So maybe this new system will mean fewer claims.

Sadly, I suspect that the weakest, most badly damaged victims, will not have the energy to pursue a complaint or "right to review", and will retreat back into the hole from whence they came. Let us hope that the overstretched National Health Service can take up the need for mental health treatment that will inevitably follow. Let us also hope that the Welfare State will provide them with much needed financial support as they struggle to function in the difficult world of post disclosure.

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