Leading article: How to serve the rights of the victim

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The Chinese have a saying: "He who seeks revenge should dig two graves". It is a caution against placing justice in the hands of the victim. That can be bad not just for the victim but also for wider society. A crime harms not just its immediate victim but also does violence to the social fabric, to the nexus of relationships and trust upon which a society depends. That is why the punishment of crime must always remain as matter for society rather than becoming the prerogative of an individual.

Nonetheless it is a fair criticism – as made by Sara Payne in her report yesterday on the British criminal justice system – that English law has never sufficiently taken into account the needs, concerns and rights of the victims of crime and that the treatment of victims varies widely from area to area. They need more help, she argues, to deal with the impact of cime and to be given clearer information about how long the perpetrators of crime will actually spend in jail.

Those are impoprtant points for a government that plans to launch a National Victims Service next year. Where Mrs Payne, who was appointed Victims' Champion at the beginning of the year, treads into more contentious territory, however, is in suggesting that drug use, criminal damage and verbal abuse should be recategorised as "criminal" behaviour and dealt with in the criminal courts. That may be a fair reflection of the anger that these offenses cause among the victims but, given the overstretched state of criminal justice in this country and the concerns about overcrowded prisons, it would push the balance of justice too far in favour of punishment over reformation.

Though it does not feature prominently in Mrs Payne's report, the concept of restorative justice now offers us a useful way to meet some of victims' concerns. For it gives them the opportunity to participate in the administration of justice – both by having their voice heard, after conviction and before sentence, and by obliging offenders to take responsibility for their crime.

Concern for the victim, however, must not become a cloak for the whim of public clamour. We must guard against attempts to repair a tear in the social fabric creating fresh ones.

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