Victims of major disasters like Hillsborough and Grenfell to receive extra support under new strategy

Bereaved families must not be left struggling ‘against the very system that was supposed to deliver answers’, government says

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 10 September 2018 00:01
A February march on Kensington High Street for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire
A February march on Kensington High Street for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire

Victims of major disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire and Hillsborough will be given extra support so their voices can be heard, under plans announced by the government.

It is consulting on the creation of an “independent public advocate”, who would guide bereaved families through the investigative process and inquests, keep them informed and ensure that they receive help.

It follows criticism of the handling of victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and a damning report into the experience of relatives of the 96 Hillsborough victims, who battled for 28 years before seeing charges brought.

“It is clear there remain serious concerns about how far the voices of the bereaved are heard, and how far they are supported in fully understanding and participating in the investigatory process,” justice minister Edward Argar wrote in a consultation document.

“An independent public advocate will help to address these concerns. I am determined that we should never again see families struggling, as we did in the many years that followed Hillsborough, against the very system that was supposed to deliver answers – and, ultimately, justice.“

The proposals are part of the government’s first ever victims strategy, which comes after research found the majority of crime victims have no confidence in the justice system and police are routinely falling short of their obligations.

As violent crime rises, figures show that almost half of all criminal investigations in England and Wales are closed with no suspects identified, and the proportion ending with a charge has fallen to just 9 per cent.

The John Worboys scandal drew attention to the treatment of victims after the Parole Board decided to release the serial sex attacker just eight years into an indefinite prison sentence, without some of his victims being informed.

John Worboys was found guilty in 2009 of attacking 12 women – but police say he could have attacked at least 100

It also emerged that some women who reported being sexually assaulted by the black cab driver were told it was unnecessary for their cases to be prosecuted, and Worboys was only convicted of 12 out of almost 100 suspected attacks.

David Gauke, the justice secretary, said victims of crime “must not also become a victim” of the process.

“We will enshrine victims’ entitlements in law by beginning a consultation early next year, and otherwise seek to boost the Victims’ Code,” he added.

“This strategy addresses the changing nature of crime, and sets out the support victims should receive at every stage of their journey through the justice system – from providing statements to police, appearing in court or in front of the Parole Board and every step in between.”

Proposals aim to improve communication and support for victims while authorities decide if to free offenders, simplifying the victim contact scheme and allowing personal statements at parole hearings.

Other proposals include revising the Victims’ Code, which is supposed to guarantee minimum entitlements but is routinely being bypassed, and underpinning it with a new law.

The updated charter would reduce the points of contact people must go through by reviewing the responsibilities of different agencies, with a consultation to be launched in early 2019.

The strategy also proposes reviewing the entire Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, particularly around applications relating to terrorism and sex offences, after grooming victims were told they did not qualify for funds because they “consented” to abuse.

Ministers plan to abolish the “same roof rule”, which denied compensation for victims who lived in the same home as their abusers before 1979 and was recently found to be a human rights violation by the Court of Appeal.

The strategy commits to increase spending on services for victims of sexual violence from Sexual Assault Referral Centres, from £31m in 2018 to £39m in 2020-21, and increasing support for families of murder victims.

It would also increase the number of registered intermediaries, who help vulnerable victims and witnesses give evidence, and improve court environments to make hearings less intimidating and more accessible.

“Nothing can take away the distress and trauma of being a victim of crime, but ensuring people get the support they need as they rebuild their lives is vital,” Theresa May said.

“How we support victims is fundamental to a caring society, and in recognition of that we are taking steps to enshrine their rights in law for the very first time.

“The duty of a government is to keep people safe, but it is not enough to simply bring offenders to court. Victims need to know they are protected and listened to, and we will continue to work with charities and support groups to improve their experience.”

The government had pledged to publish the strategy over the summer, after the 2017 Conservative manifesto stated that it would “enshrine victims’ entitlements in law, making clear what level of service they should expect from the police, courts and criminal justice system”.

Baroness Newlove, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, hailed the strategy as a major step forward.

“Victims consistently tell me that they feel their status in the criminal justice system is not comparable with that of the offender,” she added.

“I welcome this strategy, which brings us a step closer to seeing a victims’ law on the statute books. Such a law will mean that no victim in the future will have to fight for the support they’re entitled to.”

Claire Waxman, the London’s victims’ commissioner, said the government had “failed to make any concrete progress on a victims’ law since launching a consultation in January 2017”.

“We need to help victims access a fair, inclusive and transparent justice process and while the government’s strategy makes a good start, it will remain nothing more than a set of repeated expensive paper-based exercises without the funding and proper delivery that we so desperately need,” she added.

Rachel Krys, a director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “This strategy highlights how hard it is for victims to navigate the criminal justice system. The proposed new independent public advocate is a step forward and an acknowledgement that the bereaved relatives of victims of crime need specialist support and advocacy.

“But we would like this to be expanded to ensure survivors of sexual and domestic violence are also guaranteed access to advocacy. This will require a significant boost in funding, and a new approach to commissioning.”

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