“Victims of crimes are ill-served by the justice system: this bill will change that”

he tragic case of Poppi Worthington, who died in December 2012 aged just 13 months, hit the headlines recently. Despite strong criticism of the police investigation by the family court judge Justice Jackson, who identified a series of police errors, it seemed, at first, that no one was prepared to reopen the case. Not the first, nor the last, example of a victim or victim’s family getting to the end of the line with no redress.

Last week, Phoebe Greenwood wrote courageously about being mugged and having her allegation of assault dropped, at least in part because she had been drinking. She described her understandable sense that access to justice had been denied. She, of course, had gone to the police. But thousands of victims don’t. Over 80% of victims of sexual and personal violence do not have sufficient confidence in our criminal justice system to report what has happened to them.

Even where cases are brought, victims’ experience of our criminal justice system frequently falls well below their expectations. When I was director of public prosecutions, I met John and Penny Clough. Their daughter Jane was murdered in the car park of Blackpool Victoria hospital, where she worked, by her ex-partner because she had made allegations of domestic violence and rape against him. As her parents slowly recounted to me their journey through our courts, the mismatch between the rhetoric and reality of victims’ rights could not have been starker.

Claire Waxman, herself a victim of serial stalking, has repeatedly described the various ways in which she was let down as a victim, including by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) under my watch. She also decided to do something about it and persuaded the MP Elfyn Llwyd to introduce a victims bill in parliament in March 2015. When that bill fell with the election, Waxman turned to me to reintroduce it.

Having spent a good deal of 2014 with Doreen Lawrence – who of course has her own personal experience of our criminal justice system – consulting victims, victims’ groups and experts in the field, I jumped at the chance. This Friday, the bill we have drafted is listed for its second reading.

The bill is the first of its kind: it aims to provide end-to-end support for victims. It tackles the problem of underreporting by requiring every police force area to have safe places to report. Most victims of sexual or personal violence do not want to go to a police station to report what has happened to them. We can either insist that they do, or provide an alternative. The bill does the latter.

It also tackles the lack of consistency in victims’ services by requiring police and crime commissioners to assess both the need for and provision of victims’ services in their area. It also puts in a place a quality assurance scheme. That we have got to 2016 without agreed standards for the provision of victims’ services tells you all you need to know about our priorities.

We also propose putting the victims’ right to review policy, which I introduced for the CPS, on a statutory footing and extending it to the police. That way, when the police or prosecutors decide not to start a case or to drop a case, the victim has a simple and straightforward remedy; no better evidence of the need for this can be found than the case of Poppi Worthington.

The victims’ code, first introduced in 2006 and subsequently supported by successive governments, has been a step in the right direction. But without real legal teeth it has not been as effective as it could have been. The bill seeks to remedy that by making the code enforceable. It also provides an opportunity to broaden and strengthen the rights set out in the code.

There are also provisions for “ground rule” hearings in court. These, as their name suggests, provide an opportunity for a judge to exercise control over the nature and extent of the cross examination of witnesses and victims in sensitive cases. Not a new development, but a welcome one.

At the last election, the Conservative party matched Labour by promising a victims’ law in its manifesto. The victims’ bill, which I have drafted with Claire Waxman and Doreen Lawrence, has cross-party support. It is intended as the “gold standard” for victims. In one sense, of course, it presents a challenge to the government. But I hope the government will also see it as an invitation to pick it up and run with it.

Keir Starmer

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