The “Brexit” debate, which will lead to a defining moment in our history and set the tone and course of our relations with Europe and the rest of the world, has been almost exclusively focused on the economy and immigration. Any discussion of criminal justice seems to have been limited to what we may, or may not be able to do about non-British criminals who break the law. One could argue that such a debate is incomplete and far from comprehensive considering the momentous decision. If that’s the case, a notable, positive addition to the debate would, we suggest, be consideration of matters relating to how we look after and support victims and witnesses. What might a future outside of the European Union mean for them? What might be the impact on the progress made in terms of victim and witness rights and support that has undoubtedly been made in recent years? Although there may be uncertainties with how Britain may look if we leave the European Union, it would be prudent to acknowledge that victim and witness provision would be stronger within a united Europe.
2015 was a milestone year for the rights of victims in Europe; Member States had a deadline to transpose the Victims’ Rights Directive (2012/29/EU) into their domestic law. The Directive aims to establish ‘minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime’ and is the result of years of work to improve the lives of those who have been blighted by crime, of which a large commitment was given by the UK. Progress has certainly been made. According to the FRA Fundamental Rights Report 2016, a total of twelve EU Member States registered transposition of the Directive with the European Commission, with an additional eight Member States notifying the Commission of partial transposition. More progress is needed, and some countries are not as speedy in this area as others. But progress there has certainly been. And, with mutual cooperation and support, progress will continue.
In addition to the Directive, we have also seen the introduction of The European Protection Order (EPO) which is a legal framework made in order to protect a person (at risk of domestic violence) residing in or taking extended vacation to any other Member State. The EPO takes a holistic and coordinated approach to victim support in Europe and aims to prevent any form of harassment, or further criminal acts against the protected person, across national boundaries. One EPO has already been executed within the UK which has granted a restraining order to prohibit the (convicted) perpetrator from visiting a district in Sweden where the victim of the crime was re-locating. Although the EPO may not be used on a vast scale, one could argue that if it helps support and protect just one victim, it has done its job and is a welcome development.
So a question that fairly obviously springs to mind is: If Britain was to leave the EU, would we continue to cooperate with our European neighbours as effectively in protecting victims of crime? Would the mechanisms that have helped bring these support measures into being still continue to facilitate future progress, or would we need to look at creating a whole new model? The answer isn’t readily forthcoming; but it will be more difficult to find if the question has failed to be asked in the first place.
Recently, the chief executive of Women’s Aid Polly Neate has stated that ‘EU membership gives us a benchmark to hold the government to account’. The benefits brought to women from EU membership are important to recognise and, if we were to leave the Union, it would be essential to identify what measures might be put in place to ensure the survivors of domestic abuse are not put in greater danger than they are at present. But we need to highlight these issues in the debate before any decision is taken on Thursday and talk about the benefits membership of the EU has brought about in relation to the protection of women. There needs to be a more active approach to discussing the rights of victims if minds are to be informed before pen is put to paper. As we have noted, the EU has been a key player in the aim of eliminating violence against women in the form of the Victims’ Directive, the EPO and the Lisbon Treaty. EU-wide networks have been designed to encourage the spread of both knowledge and support, and this cooperation looks to facilitate a better future for victims of crime.
Of course, that’s only one view. But it is a view that might actually assist the debate, and so the decision, if it were heard more and so inform people’s minds before they vote. We can never expect to base any decision we make, even such a momentous one, on having complete and entirely objective information at our disposal; that’s not possible. But the more information we have to help shape and determine our analysis and decisions the more likely we are to do the right thing. And doing the right thing is, perhaps, about more than simply looking at what something might mean for “me” or “us” in a narrow sense. Might it not also be about what our decisions mean for others? Might it not also be about us recognising that we have a shared responsibility to consider the impact of any decisions we make on our neighbours, our friends, our fellow citizens across the street, across the neighbourhood, across the continent and beyond? The recent responses across the world to the massacre in Orlando has, once again, shown us that people across the world can come together in solidarity and mutual support.
And just to make sure we aren’t overlooking the potential benefits in relation to “law and order”, as well as victim and witness support, we can note that there have been views expressed that may give further food for thought.
Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions (DPP), announced in March that tackling crimes such as human trafficking must be tackled across Europe and that this current pan-European approach would be compromised if we’re to leave the EU. Eurojust and Europol were created for the purpose of supporting Member States in their struggle against organised serious cross-border crime; a coordinated and holistic approach across Europe is an essential catalyst for its effectiveness. In December 2015, Eurojust published a report, Prosecuting THB (trafficking in human beings) for the purpose of labour exploitation. They found that the most effective practice in judicial cooperation was to bring together judicial and law enforcement agencies from the Member States in order to allow for targeted operations. Not only this, but the prompt exchange of information has proved effective in protecting survivors of human trafficking. An example in the report describes a ‘case where the subject of an EAW (European Arrest Warrant) indicated that he had been trafficked to country A, and sought to use that information as part of a legal argument to resist extradition by arguing that if he were returned to country B (which issued the EAW) he would be highly susceptible to being trafficked again’. This emphasis on the exchange of knowledge highlights the importance of a pan-European approach to tackling serious cross-border crimes and how, if Britain was to leave the EU, there could be some serious consequences for the protection of victims of human trafficking.
So perhaps we need to move the debate on a little and, as a suggestion, ask the question: What can we bring to Europe? What can we do to make sure that the advances in victim and witness care continue to make even more progress? For it does sometimes seem that the whole debate has been reduced to a kind of “zero sum” game, where, on either side, we have been reduced to considering, in effect, “what’s in it for us?” Do we not also need to recognise that part of our thinking and, ultimately our decision making, needs to reflect that we have much to offer? In particular, don’t we need to consider how much we have to offer in terms of our commitment to those most in need?
In recent months, Supporting Justice has been involved in Europe wide discussions on the future of victim and witness services. Victim Support Europe (VSE) have been working with countries who are yet to establish their own national victim support services but who are committed to improve support services and rights for those affected by crime, many of whom we might all recognise as being among the most vulnerable and marginalised in our societies.
The VSE Conference in Utrecht, at which Supporting Justice recently presented workshops, showcased dozens of presentations on a broad array of topics; understanding victims’ needs; more effective cross border support for victims and the need for common standards; and responses to incidents of terrorism were just a number of subjects covered over the two day conference. Being a part of these consultations and helping bring about substantive, positive change for victims and witnesses is important for the future of victim support services and our common membership of the EU has, undoubtedly, helped bring policy makers, service deliverers and other key stakeholders together to assist in this. That is not to say, however, that if we were not part of the Union we would not still be able to contribute to this work. It is, though, legitimate to ask if this work would be as effective and if development would proceed at the same pace as it has in recent years.
We have also taken part recently at a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, offering some insights into witness care and how best they can be supported by a team of trained and motivated volunteers. Both these events have demonstrated that we in the United Kingdom are seen as having much to offer to our neighbours as they develop their own services for victims and witnesses and, it seems perfectly legitimate to ask if our place in the EU has helped develop a degree of confidence in others that might otherwise be absent. Victim and witness services in this country are widely accepted as being among the best, if not perfect, and international cooperation to help others improve their own services has been an important part of EU thinking over the past few years. This may, of course, continue apace in the event of a vote to leave – but, as in so many areas of interest, this is by no means certain.
We owe to victims, witnesses and survivors the guarantee that we will continue to work for a brighter future of support and care that all can take advantage of; the EU has been a mechanism to enhance this support and we should not forget that. As much as considering the other issues that have been prominent in the referendum campaign, we have an obligation to think about this as we prepare to vote on Thursday.
In the past weeks we have witnessed two horrific events that have left many people traumatised, hurt and bereaved through yet more acts of violence. As the world becomes, in lots of ways, a smaller place and as we become more aware of what happens across the globe with an immediacy that was denied in past generations, we need to think carefully about our mutual obligations and how best, together, we can help build our societies in a way that affords all members dignity, respect, proper human rights, safety and justice. That, surely, is what Thursday is about as much as finance or the movement of peoples from one country to another.