The Victims Bill: A missed opportunity?
This is a blog by our Campaigns and Communications Manager Meka Beresford.
Last week the Justice Select Committee released its pre-legislative scrutiny report on the draft Victims Bill and made recommendations that would see victims’ access to Restorative Justice improve vastly if the Government seizes the opportunity to implement them.
Over the last year, Why me? has closely worked with policymakers to highlight the importance of Restorative Justice and demonstrate how the Victims Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve RJ in legislation.
In its draft form, the legislation missed an opportunity to improve access to RJ. The Justice Select Committee recognises this in its report, which described the draft legislation as a missed opportunity to support victims’ rights.
Why me? submitted written evidence to the Justice Select Committee as part of the Justice Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny process. As part of our evidence, we made suggestions that would strengthen access to Restorative Justice (RJ) for victims and improve monitoring of RJ delivery across England and Wales.
In the report, the Justice Select Committee acknowledged the importance of Restorative Justice to victims, as well as the inconsistent access that victims face. The report stated that:
“A right to information about restorative justice and how to access local restorative justice services is already an entitlement in the Code but it is clear that it is not being delivered consistently. Our predecessor Committee’s 2016 report on restorative justice recommended that the Victims’ Law should include a provision for victims to have a legislative right to access restorative justice services. That is also our view and we recommend that that right be included in the Bill as we have set out in paragraph 34.” (Paragraph 75)
Our recommendations included that the 12 rights in the Victims’ Code of Practice be included in primary legislation, rather than the four proposed ‘overarching principles’ which summarise the 12 rights.
The Committee found that the draft bill’s intention to place these four overarching principles into legislation would serve minimal legal purpose as the principles were considered too broad. They recommended that these principles be strengthened:
“Clause 2 includes an additional subsection following subsection 1 which places an obligation on the relevant statutory services, including but not limited to the police, to make victims aware of the Victims’ Code. We further recommend that the principles currently set out in subsection 2 should be rephrased to set out what victims must have rather than should have—as provided for in the original consultation document. We suggest the following:
i) criminal justice agencies must provide victims with the information they need throughout the entirety of their case, from reporting through to post-conviction in a language or format that they can understand; this should include information on restorative justice where appropriate;
ii) victims must be able to access services which support them (including, where appropriate, specialist services);
iii) victims must have the opportunity to have their voices heard in the criminal justice process;
iv) victims must be able to challenge decisions that directly impact them.”
This proposed amendment to the overarching principles of the Victims’ Code of Practice would help create the necessary cultural change in the treatment of victims in the Criminal Justice System by removing the onus on victims to seek out their rights. Why me? welcomes this recommendation which will go a long way in strengthening access to Restorative Justice if the Government decides to implement it.
Why me? noted that in the draft, the Bill transferred the function of reviewing the operation of the Code from the Victims’ Commissioner to PCCs, and placed a duty on criminal justice agencies to collect data on code compliance. However, no additional resource to support these increased responsibilities nor guidance on monitoring, data sharing, or what data should be collected in order to support delivery was published.
The report recommends that the Government consult the Victims’ Commissioner and local victims’ groups on the data required to hold agencies to account on their performance in delivering the Code, and suggests that the data should be standardised to support comparison between PCC areas. Having standardised data is incredibly valuable for monitoring the support that victims are receiving, as we know from our Valuing Victims reports, and so we welcome this recommendation.
The Committee’s report also acknowledges that, as drafted, the Bill did not adequately address the issue of agencies’ non-compliance with the Code and recommends that the Victims’ Commissioners’ powers are increased to ensure proper oversight of implementation and urges the Government to again review the issue of compliance before presentation to Parliament. It is particularly important that the Government carefully considers this recommendation, especially given that Dame Vera Baird recently resigned from the role of Victims’ Commissioner in part due to the ‘sidelining’ of the Victims’ Commissioners office.
The Government will now have until November 30th to respond to the Committee’s report, at which point we will have a clearer understanding of what recommendations the Government will take into consideration.