Political parties have vied to produce policies on how to look after victims and witnesses better. Labour proposed a victim’s law in February. The coalition introduced a victim’s right to review cases and committed to improve victims’ rights. But a new survey by the Crown Prosecution Service suggests more victims’ legislation may not be the answer. The CPS bravely commissioned research with thousands of victims and witnesses involved in criminal cases. The CPS wanted to find out how better to meet victims’ needs, though the CPS is only one agency or factor affecting how victims and witnesses feel about the system. Their interaction with police, defence and witness services all affect their “satisfaction” with the system, as does the outcome itself. The report is very rich but here are a few key findings:
1) Maybe bleeding obvious but victims and witnesses, however well they are looked after, are more satisfied if the defendant pleads guilty or is convicted – outcomes which the CPS cannot of course control.
2) Too many victims and witnesses do not know anything about the outcome of their case. 16% of witnesses did not know anyone had been charged and 8% did not know if someone had been prosecuted.
3) Those who received a DVD on what to expect from a trial were more satisfied with the CPS.
4) Nearly half of victims felt they did not have sufficient support to prepare for cross examination.
5) The victims’ code says victims “should receive appropriate support to help them, as far as possible, to cope and recover and be protected from re-victimisation”. 37% of victims said that the CPS had helped them cope and recover, compared to 29% of witnesses.
6) Overall satisfaction with the CPS was very high – 74% of witnesses and 67% of victims were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied.
Its a fascinating survey which throws much light on the whole criminal justice system. One aspect which didn’t surprise me is that a minority of victims felt the CPS helped them to cope and recover. To be honest, I’m not sure it should be the CPS’ role to help witnesses and victims deal with the trauma of both the original crime and the court process. Someone needs to do it, but the main role of the CPS is to prosecute crimes on behalf of the state. The CPS should look after victims and witnesses as best they can during the legal process, but I think other systems and approaches need to take priority. The current adversarial court system is not designed to meet the psychological needs of victims and witnesses, and many aspects of it are likely to leave them more frustrated than ever. Restorative justice is by far the best approach to helping victims and witnesses come to terms with the original crime and, often, with the sentence too. It can’t of course be used when the defendant does not admit guilt, but such cases are (I think) the minority.
Another observation is that the internet could help. Most people have access to a mobile phone or a computer. Could they not be given access to a secure site for updates on their case, and emailed/texted alerts? That way, more people would know the basics of whether anyone had been charged/prosecuted in their case.