Victims and witnesses have long complained about their treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. At best, they may be left in the dark about progress in their cases; at worst, they can be shown a shameful lack of consideration. In short, the priorities of the agencies involved too often take precedence over those on whose behalf they are supposedly acting.
Nigella Lawson’s personal celebrity made it inevitable that there would be a storm of interest in the recent trial of her two former assistants. But the television chef nonetheless spoke for many when she described her experiences as a witness as “deeply disturbing”.
Such is the background against which Conservative MPs charged with developing policies for their party’s 2015 election manifesto have put together a proposal for a “victim’s law”.
The plan has much to recommend it. Some of its tenets are purely practical – all victims should not only be offered counselling within 24 hours of the crime, but must also be kept fully abreast both of the progress of any investigation and, if the perpetrator is ultimately sent to prison, must also be informed of developments regarding parole or release. Some of the precepts are rather more general – victims should have a legal right to be treated with courtesy, for example. And some seek to address victims’ oft-repeated desire to be heard – victims should have the option of having an “impact statement” read out at any trial, so that the court can take into account the effects of the crime.
All are sensible measures. More sensible still would be for the Prime Minister – on whose desk the proposals now lie – not only to lend them his support in broad terms, but to press ahead immediately rather than waiting for 2015. With 18 months of the current parliament still to run, there is certainly plenty of time available. Nor are there any political difficulties. Indeed, just last week the Opposition announced that it had asked Keir Starmer – the former Director of Public Prosecutions – to draw up similar plans for the Labour manifesto.
The Coalition’s voluntary code of conduct on the treatment of victims was a small step forward. Why wait to take another, larger, one?
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