The EU Victims’ Directive (Directive 2012/29/EU) came into effect on 16th November 2015. Its aim is to establish the minimum standards for the equal rights, support and protection to all victims of crime in EU Member States. The Directive has been important in setting a baseline for minimum standards that will help protect and support all victims of crime: accessing victim support services, having the right to interpretation and translation, and the right to be heard, to name but a few areas covered. Six months later the UK voted to leave the European Union; we need to consider if this decision might affect victims and their rights? And will their rights and meeting their needs be high on the agenda for the current government once we start the formal process of leaving the EU?
The Directive sets out very clear obligations for Member States to follow and each Article of the Directive represents a different element which, when put together, aim to create a system which delivers a complete service. So what do we need to consider in relation to this directive as we move towards an EU free future?
States must ensure that victims have access to and support from victim support services, especially those victims who are vulnerable and have suffered substantial harm. Article 9 of the Directive lays out the obligations on member states to adhere to this and puts emphasis on the provision of such services to be targeted at victims with specific needs, notably victims of sexual violence, gender-based violence and those who are victims of violence in close relationships. It’s legitimate to ask if this will be affected by the decision to leave the EU and if the commitment to deliver starts to be watered down even before we actually leave.
Article 10, the Right to be heard, offers information to allow EU Member States to give victims access to justice and a fair trial. It is essential that victims and witnesses have the right to be heard and to give their best evidence in any given criminal proceeding. The right to a fair trial is fundamental to the rule of law, and indeed to democracy itself, as is the right to be heard which must be an integral part of any criminal justice system.
Yet, despite the EU Directive having the real potential to help deliver a more thorough and complete protection and support network for victims, there is still a long way to go in all states. More attention needs to be given to those who are most vulnerable in society in order support them through difficult times. In the UK the Witness Service, with the help of Supporting Justice, has recently launched its outreach service which is designed to help vulnerable and intimidated witnesses give their best evidence and support them before, during and after the trial. It’s initiatives such as this which will help progress the UK’s developments in supporting victims and witnesses of crime. It will be interesting to see what progress is made after the recent announcement of a £1 billion programme to modernise the courts and live-links for those giving evidence; an initiative that will help support children and vulnerable witnesses. But it’s not enough. There needs to be a comprehensive approach to support and care and this should include, amongst other things, an increase in funding provided to refuges for victims of domestic abuse and further safeguarding measures to ensure children and the vulnerable are well protected.
And while the UK’s Code of Practice for Victims of Crime, updated in light of the Directive, entitles you to an enhanced service if you are a victim of serious crime, a persistently targeted victim or a vulnerable or intimidated victim, we need to see this commitment to improvement continue. One way this might be achieved is by making the contents of the Witness Charter binding in law, as is the Code; this is not the case at the moment.
It seems unimaginable to consider that the UK would retract the rights written in the Directive. For the UK’s own procedures for victims (Code of Practice for Victims of Crime) sets out clearly the rights of victims that must be adhered to under UK law. This will continue to uphold the protection for all victims in England and Wales. Moreover, the UK has been at the forefront of securing victims’ rights and continues to uphold legislation and implement new laws to tackle those most deeply affected by crime. For instance, on the 29th December 2015, the government introduced a new law making coercive and controlling behaviour a crime. This new offence better protects those being subjected to sustained patterns of domestic abuse and can punish those offending with a maximum sentence of 5 years. Despite the law only being used 62 times in the first 6 months of its enactment, this still shows progress in the uphill struggle to tackle domestic abuse and is a welcome development to the protection of victims. Before the Directive came into effect, a new law criminalising ‘revenge porn’ was enacted in England and Wales; since then, over 200 people have prosecuted for this offence. Is this a sign that the UK has victims’ rights high on the agenda? Certainly we are further ahead than other states.
But we must not be complacent nor just think about the level of support and protection that victims of crime receive in the UK alone. With the fluidity and ease of movement across Europe, there is a necessity to collaborate with our neighbours for the purpose of a coordinated effort to reduce crime and protect those affected by it. A core element of the EU Directive is that all Member States adhere to the articles and work simultaneously to be able to deliver the best support. Through cooperation and discussion amongst member states we can learn about best practices, protect those residing in or taking extended vacation to states outside their home state, and compile a detailed database in order to monitor any trends; an essential component to maintaining and improving an effective strategy for protecting victims of crime. There is no certainty that, with the UK leaving the EU, this cooperation will continue in the way the directive intends.
We at Supporting Justice are committed to playing our own part in keeping momentum going and highlighting the rights and needs of victims and witnesses and have presented at conferences in other EU states on previous occasions. On 27 September 2016, Rhiannon Evans of Supporting Justice will be one of the key speakers at a Public Policy Exchange Symposium – Putting Victims of Crime First: The Next Steps to Transform Victims’ Experience of the Criminal Justice System. This invaluable symposium will provide ample opportunity for victim support services, criminal justice agencies and local authorities to examine how services can provide better, more tailored support and how vulnerable and intimidated witnesses may receive the support and care that they require.
We can hope that, despite the UK voting to leaving the European Union, we will still be focused on developing the approach to improving the rights and support for victims and witnesses and to play a full part in helping both our own government and agencies and our European neighbours do the same.