Engagement takes many forms. An independent review can provide valuable evidence to inform and influence policy change. In this blog, Professor Pamela Cox and Professor Maurice Sunkin QC explain how a review of the current powers and duties of the Victim’s Commissioner led to some of their recommendations appearing in the Victims’ Law policy proposal.

The Victims' Commissioner is a public official who holds a statutory responsibility to ensure that victims’ interests, as set out in the Victims’ Code are respected and promoted.

Introduced in 2004, and recently revised, the Code seeks to ensure that victims are aware of, and able to access, the support they are entitled to receive from criminal justice agencies. It requires bodies like the police to communicate with victims about the progress of their cases and provide information about why certain decisions are taken. Our recent research for Dame Vera Baird QC, the current Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, has influenced her policy proposals for a ‘Victims’ Law’.

Together with Dr Ruth Lamont (Manchester Law School), we investigated the current constitutional powers of the Commissioner and concluded that these are inadequate. This is principally because they do not allow the Commissioner to uphold the Victims’ Code, the statutory framework which aims to guarantee the protection of crime victims’ interests and support their engagement with criminal justice agencies.

We compared the functions, duties and powers of the Victims’ Commissioner with those of similar bodies including the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the English Children’s Commissioner. We found that the Office of the Victims’ Commissioner does not have comparable powers to achieve its statutory purpose or perform its statutory obligations.

Our report calls for a number of reforms to address these gaps.  These include enabling the Commissioner to report directly to Parliament to raise awareness of issues affecting victims, and enabling them to have oversight of complaints made by victims against criminal justice agencies, including taking legal action to ensure they comply with the Victims’ Code – a new Victims' Code came into force on 1 April 2021.

Once we had completed our report, we took part in a series of expert roundtables convened by Dame Vera to allow greater discussion of what might be included in a Victims’ Law. Of the 34 recommendations made in the Victims Law Policy Paper eight are closely informed by our report.

In the words of the Victims' Commissioner: “A victims’ law would ensure that victims’ rights, such as to information, making a personal statement and accessing independent support services, are legally enforceable. With a Victims’ Law, we have the opportunity to truly transform the victims’ experience of the justice system. I look forward to engaging with the government in the coming months to make this law a reality.”

We hope that our research continues to inform public and policy debate on victims’ entitlements and how they can be upheld.