Looking after the victims: are they still the forgotten people in the criminal justice system?
Chair: Martin Gill
Bianca Biwer – Federal Executive at WEISSER RING, Victim Support (Germany)
Neil Masters – Secretariat to the Home Office Joint Fraud Taskforce and Policy Manager at Cifas (UK)
Mangai Natarajan PhD – Professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (US)
Bianca Biwer notes that the traditional over focus on the offender is to be guarded against; victims are also more important than giving just providing evidence important though that is. You will hear Bianca trace the history of victim service development in Germany, starting in the 1970s, spurred on by European legislation and fashioned by a greater awareness of victims’ rights. While always there is a need to balance the latter with those of offenders, she stresses that arguments that improving victims’ rights creates burdens for the criminal justice systems are not sufficient to undermine them. Her organisation, the national provider of victim services, which is not State funded, spearheads this awareness. Bianca expresses mixed experiences of engaging in restorative justice, bringing victim and offender together, much depending on how engaged each party is; she notes that for many offenders taking part is for self-interest limiting the amount victims can benefit. Her final call is for parties to work together to help meet victims’ needs.
Neil Masters has worked in this area, directly or indirectly, for 47 years, and he too traces the enormous progress that has been made in providing services for victims in the UK, since their humble beginnings in Bristol in the 1970s, while also drawing attention to work that still needs to be done. He rightly notes that the higher profile of the victim has been about more than providing a dedicated service, it has also been about recognising the vulnerability of victims in different setting and court is one, where there is now the facility, for example, to present evidence behind screens. He makes two other key points. The first is that the national funding of victim support has given way to a regional structure following the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners, which has rendered service delivery across the country as patchy. Second, he highlights the benefits in the ‘Victims Code,’ currently under discussion, and giving victims statutory rights as the key to making a real difference in their circumstance. You will hear Neil discuss frauds (e. romance fraud and courier fraud) from a victims’ perspective, here there has been much less focus, but where the consequences of victimisation can be just as serious as if they had suffered a violent offence.
Mangai Natarajan takes a specific focus on domestic violence which has been of growing public concern during the pandemic. To be clear, this is an area where offences are continual and involve many forms of abuse including sexual violence. It affects women of all types and they often suffer alone, worse still, and the pandemic is an example, are locked up for long periods with their abuser in very stressful contexts. Different victims have different needs but research in the US has shown that most needs are not met, many are not fully understood. A major issue has been the lack of funding, and she calls for this to be remedied. Meanwhile, she advocates co-ordinating the range of services that are available, from for example, hospitals and clinics, schools, and companies provide services too. More consideration needs to be given as to how services should be targeted; what is the best way of determining who receives the small amount of service available? Mangai puts a positive slant on restorative justice, in some circumstances at least, and you will hear her draw attention to the plight of victims in less developed countries.
What is clear is that despite the enormous progress in developing a range of different services for victims, there is a need for more research on understanding different victims’ needs and on the type of services best suited to meeting them. There is a lack of funding, but there is more that can be done to co-ordinate the range of provision that exists from different entities. Promoting victims’ rights need to be balanced with care so as not to undermine those of offenders, it is a tricky balance and one seemingly the world is only just beginning to fully understand.
10th December 2020