Victims' Champion seeks justice reform

Sara Payne demands trauma counselling via GP referral and clear sentencing
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The Independent Online

Crime victims suffering acute stress as a result of their ordeal are being "woefully" failed by the National Health Service, the Victims' Champion Sara Payne warned yesterday.

Ms Payne, whose daughter Sarah was murdered by a paedophile, claimed doctors were poor at spotting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sufferers were then placed on "horrendously long" waiting lists.

In a wide-ranging review of the criminal justice system, she also called for clearer sentencing to alert victims to when offenders would be freed and more support for people plagued by antisocial behaviour. Ms Payne, who protested that police and courts were "not designed to support the needs of victims and witnesses", was scathing about the "woefully lacking" emotional support offered to PTSD sufferers struggling to cope with the impact of relatively minor, as well as major, crimes. She said complaints about the "desperate lack of counselling" provided by primary care trusts were "almost universal" among crime victims. "I met victims who had never received counselling despite a GP referring them," she added.

Ms Payne called for a boost in the number of trained counsellors employed by the NHS and a clear process for referring sufferers. Mrs Payne told a London press conference that by the time PTSD sufferers had counselling they were often "so far down they are on medication". She added: "GPs often are not good at diagnosing this."

Ms Payne also urged that judges should spell out exactly how long a criminal is likely to spend behind bars. "The sentence the victim hears handed down must be the sentence served. If the offender is likely to be released after half their sentence, this must be explained at sentencing," she said.

In her 50-page report she called for "relatively serious" acts, such as racially abusing neighbours and attempted car theft, to be treated as criminal offences rather than "antisocial behaviour", which, she said, resulted in people whose lives were "ruined" by such treatment being forgotten.

Her call followed the case of Fiona Pilkington, the woman who killed herself and her disabled daughter after years of harassment from youths, during which no criminal charges were brought. Ms Payne said: "Victims and witnesses deserve better from the justice system – a system that in the past only defined justice as catching the criminal and protecting the public. While these are vital, it leaves the needs of the victim second."

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said: "It is because we want to keep up momentum in making improvements for victims that we appointed Sara Payne as Victims' Champion." He said the first national Victims Service, offering counselling to people whose loved ones have been murdered, and a helpline giving free legal advice to bereaved families, will be set up. But Gillian Guy, chief executive of Victim Support, called the report a "missed opportunity". She said: "It doesn't tackle the problem that however much we tweak the justice system to help victims and witnesses, we are trying to make it do something it was not designed to do."

Victims' report: What Ms Payne wants

* Increase funding for counselling for victims.

* Clearer explanation of sentences.

* Ban offenders from obtaining reduced sentences by pleading guilty on day of trial.

* Concentrate on the impact of a crime on a victim, rather than the nature of the offence.

* Require police to keep witnesses and victims up to date on the progress of investigations.

* Develop end-to-end scheme for looking after victims.

* Make it easier for victims to complain about their lack of help.

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