Victim Support has moved swiftly to express “serious concerns” that tens of thousands – and perhaps in excess of one million* – victims of crime every year are being denied the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement – not only denying those victims a voice, but also potentially impacting on their confidence in the criminal justice system.
Victim Support’s concerns were raised in response to the publication (on Monday 23 November) of the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales’ detailed report entitled: ‘The Silenced Victim: A Review of the Victim Personal Statement’, in which the Commissioner expresses ‘outrage’ that so many victims are being silenced.
A “systemic failure” to ensure the victims of criminality have the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement (VPS) has left them “unfairly silenced” within the criminal justice system, the Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Helen Newlove has announced. Baroness Newlove finds that many victims would have liked the opportunity to make such a statement, but were not offered the chance to do so.
The VPS is the only opportunity for a victim to express in their own words how a crime has impacted on them during court cases or Parole Board hearings.
The Victims’ Commissioner’s thorough situational review finds that:
*six out of every ten victims surveyed did not recall being offered the chance to make a VPS (and that, of those, 73% would have liked the opportunity to do so)
*across the last 12 months, almost a third of magistrates had never seen a VPS while 62% had seen one in less than half of those cases upon which they’d adjudicated
*a VPS was only included in an estimated 25-30% of Parole Board dossiers
*Judges and Magistrates value a VPS as these documents assist them when sentencing offenders
Silenced by the criminal justice system
Baroness Newlove asserted: “It’s outrageous that many victims are being silenced by the criminal justice system rather than having their voices heard. A victim is entitled to make a Victim Personal Statement such that they can explain in their own words the impact of the crime committed against them. A continued failure to offer this entitlement demonstrates that justice is neither fair nor accessible for all.”
The Baroness added: “This situation cannot continue. I want all criminal justice agencies to work together to better support victims and make sure they’re given the chance for their voice to be heard.”
‘The Silenced Victim: A Review of the Victim Personal Statement’ is the second review from the Victims’ Commissioner specifically designed to assesses compliance around the Victims’ Code. The review examines how the various agencies and criminal justice sector partners involved in the VPS process deliver on their obligations and what victims say they are experiencing.
Those criminal justice agencies surveyed recognised and acknowledged the importance and significance of a VPS and agreed that not enough was being done to support victims and allow them to make the choice.
For their part, police officers admitted using their own judgement to decide on whether or not to offer a VPS rather than offering it to every victim of criminality.
In a victims’ survey run by the Victims’ Commissioner’s Office, 78% of those who had made a VPS would do so again if they found themselves in similar circumstances. However, victims felt it was important to know how the information they provided was taken into account as this isn’t set out in the Victims’ Code.
Series of recommendations made
Baroness Newlove has now identified a number of recommendations to rectify some of the problems highlighted in the latest review. These include the following:
*police services should consider whether other organisations could assist them in taking a VPS
*if a VPS isn’t present on either court or parole files, the court and Parole Board Panel should ask whether the victim has been given the opportunity to make one
*the court and Parole Board Panel should indicate whether they’ve read the VPS, including anything which is directly linked to their decision-making process
*the Ministry of Justice should consider amendments to the Victims’ Code in order to set out each agency’s obligations around delivering the VPS process to victims
*all criminal justice agencies should monitor and quality assure their compliance to deliver the VPS process as set out in a revised Victims’ Code and other guidance material
A set of Victims’ Commissioner’s Standards has been developed to support agencies in their implementation of some of these recommendations. This is the second set of such standards, the first having been produced following the Victims’ Commissioner’s review into how complaints are handled (which was published back in January this year).
Response from Victim Support
Mark Castle OBE, CEO of Victim Support, responded: “This report and other recent research indicates that thousands of victims – perhaps more than a million – have been denied the opportunity in court to explain the impact of a crime. If sentences are passed which, in the absence of a VPS, do not fully reflect the impact of crimes on victims, confidence in the criminal justice system may well be lost.”
Castle went on to state: “The right to make a VPS must be upheld by all criminal justice agencies, and there must be a mechanism in place to effectively hold them to account. We welcome the Commissioner’s suggestion that agencies should provide sufficient help to victims through the VPS process, and also the recommendation that the police service should consider other organisations assisting them in taking a VPS.”
One victim who feels she benefited from making a VPS is Susan**, who was sexually assaulted while walking home.
Susan said: “I found writing the VPS a cathartic experience. It helped me process and understand how the crime had impacted on me. It enabled me to have a voice and to express my thoughts and feelings, and was an important step for me in coming to terms with what had happened. I gave evidence in court, but that was about the facts of the incident. The VPS was an opportunity to talk about how the crime affected me and the impact it has had – and will have – on my life moving forward.”
*Some offences will have multiple victims while others will have no direct victims. However, it’s reasonable to assume that there will be at least as many victims of crime as there are notifiable offences recorded by the police service in any given year. The number of notifiable offences recorded by the police service in the year to June 2015 was 3,660,550. Crown Prosecution Service figures indicate that 34% of victims are not offered the chance to make a VPS. This equates to 1,244,587 victims who were denied the opportunity to make a VPS in the last 12 months
**Name changed to protect identity