Testimony of victims' families 'could increase jail sentences'

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The Independent Online

Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs minister, said judges might be influenced under plans to allow bereaved families to talk in open court about the effect of a loved one's death. Under the proposals, published yesterday, families of murder and manslaughter victims will be able to address judges directly about their grief before sentences are handed down.

If pilot schemes are successful, the scheme could be extended to other serious crimes such as rape and causing death by dangerous driving, the Constitutional Affairs Department said.

The Law Society warned that the change could undue influence on sentences in cases where the victim had no family to address the court. Victim Support also expressed concern, saying families might feel under pressure to address judges.

Asked if the testimony of victims could increase sentences yesterday Ms Harman said: "It might do." She added: "If it means assisting the court in seeing the victim's perspective in the utmost serious of crimes then I think that is no bad thing.

"If it means the sentence is higher on a manslaughter than it might otherwise have been in the first instance without hearing from the victim's relatives, then I think that would be a good thing and that would be right."

She added: "The sentencing exercise is a very sensitive and important one which judges take very seriously. I don't think it is impossible for them to have these additional, helpful contributions - which will be helpful for the victim's relatives who make it.

"I think judges will find it helpful and they will be able to take it into account along with all the other factors they take into account."

Ms Harman said ministers wanted to end the frustration of victims' families who believed they had no voice in court cases. At present victims can submit a written statement to courts, but cannot speak in person or through a lawyer. She said she wanted to "end the problem of victims' relatives feeling that while everybody else is talking they are confined to silence".

Yesterday's consultation document stops short of Labour's election pledge to give rape victims a similar right to address judges before sentences are passed.

Ms Harman said: "There have been a whole range of measures that have been introduced to try to help and support victims of rape. That is continuously being worked on.

"This we are bringing forward in relation to homicides because the homicide victim will never speak for themselves because they are dead and the victim's relatives are in the public gallery and will not usually be giving evidence."