Exclusive: David Cameron looks to strengthen support for victims of crime

The PM is expected to back proposals to extend the voluntary code that the police, courts and probation service are supposed to adhere to, and give it legal force

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Victims of crime would gain the legal right to tell courts about the distress they have suffered and to be kept fully informed about investigations and prosecutions under plans before David Cameron.

The measures are designed to combat complaints that victims often find the criminal justice system insensitive to their needs and difficult to navigate.

Police, courts and the probation service are supposed to adhere to a voluntary code protecting the rights of victims. But it has been criticised as toothless and the Prime Minister is now expected to back proposals to extend the code and give it legal force.

The moves, which have been drawn up by the Downing Street policy board, look certain to become a Conservative election manifesto commitment in 2015.

Under the plans victims would for the first time have the legal right to be involved by the criminal justice agencies from the moment they are attacked, mugged or burgled.

They would also be entitled to receive help and support within 24 hours of reporting a crime to the police.

If the perpetrator is caught, an “impact statement” detailing the effect of the offence on the victim would be read out in court and judges would be legally required to take it into account when passing sentence.

Police and prosecutors would be required to explain every step of investigations and prosecutions to victims and set out the reasons for sensitive decisions such as dropping charges.

Details of sentences would be spelt out, and victims would be consulted about parole applications and warned in advance if perpetrators were about to be released.

Protection for witnesses to crime would also be strengthened by making it illegal for employers to penalise staff who have to take off time from work to give evidence to the police or in court.

Mr Cameron is also examining plans to underpin the proposed law with a statutory requirement for victims to be treated with courtesy and respect at all times by the criminal justice agencies.

The Government has promised to strengthen the existing code, including spelling out victims' rights and advising people who feel they have been let down how to complain.

The revised version has yet to appear and MPs have complained that the current voluntary approach - even if it is given extra teeth - is not sufficient to boost confidence in the criminal justice system.

Surveys have shown that a majority of the public feels the system lets down victims and witnesses and complaints about their treatment is a recurring theme at politicians' surgeries, MPs say.

Tory sources told The Independent that senior party figures, including the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, were highly sympathetic to the call for statutory rights for victims.

Political pressure on Mr Cameron to act will have been heightened by Labour's announcement last week that it is drawing up proposals to promise a “victim's law” in its election manifesto.

The work is being headed by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who is also tipped as a future Labour MP.

He is heading a taskforce which is examining ways of giving more protection for rape victims and abused children when they are in the witness box.

Victims of crime could also be given a single point of contact so they find it easier to get information about the progress of their case.

Two months ago Mr Grayling said he believed the scales of justice should be tipped more towards crime victims. He said: “Too often victims tell me they are treated as an afterthought by the justice system.”

He has announced plans to divert more criminal assets, and inmates' earnings from prison jobs, into supporting victims.