Historically victims have not been the focus of our criminal justice system. Criminal offences are outrages against the state and it is the state who brings a prosecution, not the victim. For example, in a rape prosecution the defendant will have legal representation – his defence – but the prosecution speaks on behalf of the Crown not the victim. Victims have then often felt excluded by the criminal justice system and the Government want to introduce further measures to take account of the needs of victims.
The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime provides clear guidance on the current provision for victims. The Code details the support available during investigation, prosecution and post-trial, the duties placed on criminal justice system personnel and how to make a complaint. Studies have shown a surprising number of victims (80 per cent) don’t want this assistance and the most recent Code sought to address this by targeting resources to provide additional support to victims of serious crime, persistently targeted and vulnerable or intimidated victims.
Although victims then have ‘rights’ they are not enshrined in law, the Code is merely guidance and its provisions are not legally enforceable. Both Labour and the Conservatives advocate making further improvements and enshrining these rights in statute, but is this a system that needs fixing?
There has already been a significant shift in the way victims are dealt with. Victim Support does a wonderful job, vulnerable victims (and witnesses) are offered careful assistance at all stages and the treatment of victims of sexual offences has improved dramatically in the past 10 years.
This said, victims cannot be offered help and support if they cannot be identified and the Prime Minister has announced a new offence of wilfully neglecting those at risk of, and victims of, child sexual abuse. Clearly child protection personnel, medical staff, teachers and the police have important roles to play in identifying victimisation, but criminalising those who perform these roles carelessly does nothing but place a heavier burden on those already working hard to protect children.
What we require is an environment in which victims (and advocates for those victims) feel complaints will be listened to and taken seriously, and it is not the state of the law that stops victims coming forward, it’s the concern that they may not be believed. Legislation may go some way toward eradicating this “culture of denial” – as the Prime Minister phrased it when discussing the recent grooming cases – but it won’t address the central problem, our social stereotypes. When we demonise sexually active children, drunk women and prostitutes in the media should we really be surprised when agencies of the criminal justice system refuse to take them seriously as victims?
Dr Samantha Pegg
Nottingham Law School
Nottingham Trent University
This article was originally written for and published by the Nottingham Post