Established in 2004, the role of the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales was created to provide a champion for the interests of victims, for whom the criminal justice system may be difficult or overwhelming to navigate. The role provides an independent voice for victims at government level and aims to reinforce the status of the Victims’ Code. However, Dr Ruth Lamont from The University of Manchester and Professor Pamela Cox from The University of Essex argue that the powers of the Commissioner do not go far enough to fully support victims or uphold the Victims’ Code.
A victim of crime does not normally prosecute the offence against them in court, although prior to the 1850s this was common. Typically, the police investigate an alleged offence and the Crown Prosecution Service decide whether there is sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution, and whether it is in the public interest to do so. The alleged victim of an offence does not have a direct or formal role, except as a potential witness, in the police investigation or in the CPS decision to prosecute. In other states with similar ‘adversarial’ justice systems, alleged victims have a more direct and formal role. In England and Wales, however, the victim can only act as a witness for the prosecution or, in some cases, make a Victim Personal Statement explaining the impact of the offence in their own words. The prosecution process leaves the hands of the victim. The status of the victim in the criminal justice system has been characterised as marginal and disengaged.
The role of the Victims’ Commissioner
This feature of the justice system has been subject to critical comment and policy development since the 1990s. Key to these policies is the Victims’ Code, which seeks to guarantee the protection of victims’ interests and support their interaction with criminal justice agencies. Along with regularly reviewing the Code, the Victims’ Commissioner seeks to encourage good practice in the treatment of victims by criminal justice agencies (such as the police and the Crown Prosecution Service) through engagement and encouragement, and review of implementation of standards in relation to victims. The Victims’ Commissioner seeks to provide an independent voice for victims of crime at government level, and to act as a champion of victims’ interests in wider society.
For the victim of crime, the criminal justice landscape can be complex. Once the offence against them is reported, they may be offered support by charities such as Victims’ Support, but the extent of their knowledge of the process of prosecution, acting as a witness, and awareness of the Victims’ Code obligations may be very limited. The role of the Victims’ Commissioner is therefore an important aspect of accountability for victims of crime.
Our recent report demonstrates that, despite the unique and important nature of the role, the Victims’ Commissioner lacks key powers to effectively support and advocate on behalf of victims. Commissioners are government bodies, but they are intended to operate ‘at arm’s length’ and provide a critical friend role to the government and agencies they work with. The research, led by Professor Pamela Cox, with Professor Maurice Sunkin QC (The University of Essex) and Dr Ruth Lamont (The University of Manchester), compares the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner to those of the other offices, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the English Children’s Commissioner. Compared to the other Commissioners’ powers, the Victims’ Commissioner does not have comparable statutory powers to achieve its purpose and cannot effectively carry out the obligations placed upon her.
For example, complaints are an important indicator of where the Victims’ Code is being consistently breached and victims are struggling to navigate the system. If obligations under the Victims’ Code towards the victim are breached, the victim is entitled to complain ‘to the relevant service provider’. This requires knowledge about both the Code and the service provider to make a complaint; this lack of knowledge and accountability often makes the complaints process inaccessible with no single point of contact or support. The Victims’ Commissioner currently has no role in this process, or oversight of complaints made by victims.
Greater powers to support victims
As overseer of the Code, the Victims’ Commissioner should have powers of oversight into the bodies generating complaints and the nature of those complaints. To ensure compliance with the terms of the Code, we argue that the Victims’ Commissioner should have the power to receive complaints from victims and direct them to the body alleged to be at fault. This role would ensure consistency in practice and provide a single point of contact for victims seeking to complain. It would also inform the Commissioner’s other work, promoting the interest of victims and awareness of the Code, and provide the basis for future support initiatives.
The government is committed to further review of the criminal justice system and how it treats victims of crime. The Victims’ Commissioner has recently incorporated our suggestions into her policy proposals for the development of a ‘Victims’ Law’. These proposals will contribute to the debates in the best ways to support victims of crime through the process of prosecution. It is to be hoped that as a result, the Victims’ Commissioner is invested with further statutory-based powers for the effective representation of victims and their needs across the justice system.
This article was first published on Policy@ManchesterBlogs
Professor, University of Essex
Pamela Cox's teaching and research spans social policy, socio-legal studies, social history and criminology. She also works as a policy consultant with government, local authority and voluntary sector organisations.