Who really speaks up for victims?

April 13, 2012 3:59 pm

John and Penny Clough take the stage to talk about the murder of their daughter Jane with grief etched faces that blend sorrow with a determination that her memory will change the criminal justice system.

I had previously spoken with Frank and with Bob; both also had families traumatised by the murder of loved ones.  But they all have something in common besides a life damaged by homicide.  They have the over-riding goal of wanting to see victims of homicide having a justice system that really sees them at its heart.

I was attending the Mother Against Murder & Aggression conference where I had been asked to speak.  The conference had already heard from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Deputy Director at the Ministry of Justice responsible for victim policy, and I was to speak on Labour’s plans to follow up on the Louise Casey report when we are back in government.

Hearing the heart-wrenching experiences of victim’s families really focuses the mind on the phrase “much done, but so much more to do”.  As I was to say, perhaps the biggest impact Labour had on helping victims of crime was cutting the level of crime – ending our time in government with crime 43% lower than when we took office in 1997.

But there are other achievements we are right to be proud of.  For example, we saw that the effects of crime on victims was not being heard in court, so we introduced victim personal statements and we understood the even greater needs for those left bereaved by crime so we established the national homicide service.

We saw that the out-dated and incoherent system of coroners we have in this country desperately needed change so we introduced legislation to bring in a Chief Coroner and the powers he or she would need.

Incredibly this government decided to renege on that cross-party agreement but thanks to overwhelming public pressure they had to begrudgingly reinstate the role.  Typically the government’s parting shot was to strip away many of the vital powers and abilities and it remains to be seen how much more watered down the role will be once the Government finally get round to its proper implementation.

For all that Ken Clarke and his ministers talk a good game and put out sensible sounding consultation documents, the reality speaks for itself.  We have a Legal Aid Bill finishing its journey through Parliament that will see support torn away from vulnerable victims.  We have changes proposed to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme that will deny compensation to victims of crime.

From Ken Clarke’s ridiculous and misguided comments on rape, to the hastily-aborted plans to reduce sentences by 50% in return for a guilty plea, it is clear that in practice this government is not viewing the justice system through the eyes of the victim, despite what it claims.

So we have our record in government to show our credentials as a party who champion the needs of victims and the record of the current government that is all froth and no substance.

But what could victims expect of a future Labour government?

Our starting point would be the review undertaken by the Victims’’ Commissioner, Louise Casey.  Her review gave a thorough and often disturbing picture of the practical, physical and emotional effects of the loss of a loved one upon victims, and the fact that the criminal justice system currently doesn’t do nearly enough to mitigate any of these

Some of the figures produced by her report are startling: 75% of the 400 bereaved families interviewed in the course of the report suffered from depression, one-in-five became addicted to alcohol and a quarter stopped work permanently or had to move home.

The average monetary cost to the families of each homicide was £37,000 and nearly a quarter of families suddenly became responsible for children as a result of the death of a loved one.

Despite real improvements by everyone from the Police to the judiciary it is still the case that victims and witnesses are on the side-lines of the criminal justice system.  As Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary said, in government Labour will introduce a Victim’s Law.

One of the key aspects to such a law should be the requirement for the Coroner to release the body back to the family for burial within 28 days unless of course there are exceptional circumstances.  No longer should victims’ families have to suffer the macabre games played by some defendants who request repeated post mortems to be carried out and so even delay the victim a prompt burial.

The Police and CPS should be under a legal obligation to maintain the flow of information to families at every stage of the investigation and throughout the trial including on conviction, acquittal or appeal.  Good police officers, good police forces, and good CPS offices do this anyway so it isn’t an unachievable burden on the police or CPS.

The new Police and Crime Commissioners will soon herald a new postcode lottery of victim support so Labour in opposition is already looking at how we could improve the system and how Labour PCCs can ensure a coherent network of best practice and high minimum standards that victims can rely upon.

Labour would look to legislate around the treatment of families in Court to ensure victims’ families do have a voice and a formal status in proceedings.  And importantly the family should have a seamless, integrated package of help and support with the force of law backing it up.

Nothing will ever take away the pain from families like those of Jane Clough.  But given Labour in government has shown it can deliver real improvements our shared goal must be to continue to drive down crime, and for those who are still caught up as victims of crime to create a truly victim-centred criminal justice system.

Rob Flello is Shadow Justice Minister and Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South

  • ThePurpleBooker

    Can victims have a say in the sentence and the punishment of the wrongdoer?

    • MAMAAUK

      No, but the victim personal statement should be considered by the judge pre sentencing.

Latest

  • Comment UKIP’s attitude to accountability should worry us all

    UKIP’s attitude to accountability should worry us all

    UKIP’s reaction to the allegations over the use of the party’s EU funding has been telling. It tells us that they are not yet ready to take the step up from a being an assortment of oddballs and cranks to a serious political party. After The Times ran their front page on Tuesday, UKIP’s immediate reaction was to denounce the paper as a mouthpiece for the establishment, rather than bother to refute what they felt was incorrect about the article. […]

    Read more →
  • Featured In praise of Simon Danczuk

    In praise of Simon Danczuk

    Simon Danczuk has led the front pages this week with his explosive account of how an MP could hide a lifetime of abusing children. The Westminster reaction to his Cyril Smith allegations? Embarrassed coughs. Good on Simon for having the courage to speak his mind. Since his 2010 election, itself a feat of endurance, he’s demonstrated a forensic mind and a canny eye for a story. He represents a diminishing Westminster breed, a ‘character’ who speaks with an authentic voice […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Swinging The Axe – Why hiring Axelrod means Miliband is going big

    Swinging The Axe – Why hiring Axelrod means Miliband is going big

    David Axelrod has been hired by Labour to work on the party’s general election campaign. First – let me get the excitement out. David Axelrod is the biggest star in the world when it comes to political campaigning. Nevermind “guru”, this guy is a campaigning deity in his own right. From Barack Obama’s Chicago kitchen table to the Oval Office was a journey that few thought possible, but Axelrod managed the shift from state senator, to Senator, to President in […]

    Read more →
  • News Video David Axelrod’s video message to Labour members and supporters

    David Axelrod’s video message to Labour members and supporters

    Labour’s new strategist David Axelrod – who helped get Obama elected in 2008 and 2012 – has recorded a message for Labour members and supporters. He argues that “It’s isn’t people like me who win these elections – it’s people like you” – here’s the video in full:

    Read more →
  • Comment 10 social history visits for British politicos

    10 social history visits for British politicos

    New Lanark (Lanarkshire) The Robert Owen Museum (Montgomeryshire) The People’s Palace (Glasgow) St Giles’ Cathedral (Edinburgh) The People’s History Museum (Manchester) The International Slavery Museum (Liverpool) Cable Street (London) The Holocaust Memorial Garden (London) The British Library (London) The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum (Dorset) Obviously most LabourList readers think of this Saturday as part of the countdown to polling day but on the off-chance your organiser is letting you get any friends and family time this holiday weekend, here are ten […]

    Read more →