When, indeed if, we think about the Criminal Justice System, we may tend to overlook how important it is to have something in place we can trust and rely on.
We must be sure that it offers us what we need. But are we? The stark reality is that although this system is here to protect us all and offer support when it is needed, to deter crime in the first place and deliver sanction when it does not, it can sometimes seem daunting, alien and even intimidating for victims. It can seem remote, almost out of touch and so not actually helping at an already challenging, frequently distressing and confusing time.
Governments across the European Union are preparing for the implementation of the Directive on minimum standards for victims of crime in November this year.
A crucial starting point of any system is that it should be transparent – people need to be able to see how it operates, why certain things take place and have an understanding of the processes involved. An opaque, frosted glass like system is, surely, more likely to be seen as impersonal, disconnected and ineffective. That is, arguably, one of the problems faced in recent years by our own parliament. Transparency, clarity and the provision of accurate and timely information are critical. And if these are to be delivered what must define and underpin the system is a culture that places the person, the victim or witness at the centre. All of us, whether in the United Kingdom or any other European Union country, should feel able and confident in approaching the police, or any competent authority with trust and belief that they will be believed, valued and supported; in other words, that we matter.
This is what makes Chapter Two of the Directive, entitled ‘Provision of information and support’ so important.
The Directive, which must be enshrined into all member state law by November 16th 2015, orders that Victims must receive;
The right to Understand and be understood (Article 3) and;
The right to receive information from the first contact with a competent authority (Article 4)
Here in the United Kingdom, we have made progress, and can see examples where legislation has been enacted to try to deliver a better sense of understanding of our justice system and help for victims to articulate their concerns and needs. For example, the Victims Code of Practice can help deliver not only a fairer system, but, just as importantly, a more accessible system. But there is more to do. There is a pressing need for more intermediaries in our courts – they provide a vital communication service for those who cannot communicate effectively. Vulnerable victims and witnesses are at an even greater disadvantage than the rest of us when trying to understand and navigate the criminal justice system and rely on extra support measures in order to have that fair and equal access to justice that is a benchmark of a civilised society. All victims need to receive communication from criminal justice agencies, in written or oral form, in clear, simple and accessible language – it is even more important that, when appropriate, this be tailored to meet individual need, particularly when engaging with those who may have a disability that affects their ability to understand and be understood.
And following on from this is the need for victims, at the earliest possible stage, to receive clear and appropriate information, especially in relation to the type of support they can expect and from whom, information about legal aid provision, compensation, interpretation and translation services. In short, all member states must be in a position to provide victims, in whichever member state they reside or wherever any offence takes place, with the very basics we should all expect in relation to information and communication.
That will be more of a challenge for some than others. But it is not an optional extra for any member state. It is a requirement and should be a priority with or without a Directive to back it up. It is to be hoped that the preparations for the implementation of the Directive in November will manifest themselves clearly and effectively across the Union and that victims, and witnesses, can place their trust and confidence in our respective justice systems in a way that, at present, they perhaps cannot.
Every one of us can become a victim of crime and every one of us needs to feel assured that we can make that first step, report the crime and feel protected and supported enough to engage with the process that should deliver justice, justice for the individual and justice for us all.