Thursday, September 01, 2005

Screaming and Shouting

The Department for Constitutional Affairs has published a consultation paper today on the subject of the role of the deceased's relatives and friends in the process of manslaughter and murder trials.

The consultation paper is entitled "Hearing the relatives of murder and manslaughter victims: The Government’s plans to give the bereaved relatives of murder and manslaughter victims a say in criminal proceedings".

I will pull a few useful quoutes from the document to illustrate what it is that the government is trying to achieve, and where my objections lie. Quotes are in italics.

Victims make their voices heard now – but usually outside court, on the steps of the court, sometimes in front of the media. They take that opportunity because it is clear that they often feel that is the only choice open to them – the only course of action available. p.6

I won't argue with the idea that some people do wish to make a public statement on the loss of a friend or family member, and that on the steps of the courts is where they choose to do it. I don't believe that this is as common an occurance as is sometimes portrayed. I believe that a lot of people in that situation would just like to be left alone. Many of the statements read out by lawyers are pleas to the media and society to be left alone after the trial - made because they feel they have to by the presures of society.

We want to build on the improvements we have been making. So far, the changes we have made are mainly about how the court process should impact on the victim – not how the victim should impact on the process. p.13

I fully support the changes that have been made so far in ensuring that the decisions of the CPS and other legal organisations are transparent - so that the relatives of the deseased know why decisions have been made, such as decisions not to prosecute or why the particular charge has been brought. Similarly the single point of contect for witnesses to make the whole system seem less confusing is to be welcomed.

I am very uneasy about the idea that the same people should have any say in those decisions.

In October 2001 we introduced the right for victims or others affected by the crime to make a written personal statement, known as a Victim Personal Statement. p.14

This statement may be taken into account when the courts decide on a sentence, or bail conditions. What happens to people who have no living relatives? Will the fact that no one will make a statement on their behalf mean that their lives are 'cheaper' than other peoples?

What about those families who do not wish to stand up in court and display their grief for society's entertainment. Will their lack of a statement be detrimental to the legal and sentencing process?

A court of law is supposed to be an impartial arbiter of justice, not a media circus, nor a lynch mob.

But evidence shows that the takeup and understanding of the Victim Personal Statement has been patchy so far. p.14

I have downloaded the report quoted as "evidence" in this case and I am working through it (80 pages). I will write a second post in the next few days once I have finished. Needless to say the VPS has not been an unqualified success.

The CPS and other prosecuting authorities are taking further steps to encourage and facilitate dialogue between prosecutors and victims. For example, the Attorney General will shortly be introducing new guidelines that emphasise the importance of seeking the views of victims in making prosecution decisions. p.15

I hope I'm not alone in opposing this. Decisions over whether to prosecute are supposed to be taken on the merits of the case, including whether there is enough evidence for a reasonable chance of conviction. I do not see the point in allowing the relatives of the victim to push forward a case that has little or no chance of success.

We wish to consider a radical proposal to try a new approach, namely that in murder and manslaughter cases relatives should be able to present their views in person to the judge at the sentencing stage of the trial. This should provide a better basis for the judge to take account of the effect of the crime on the bereaved relatives when sentencing. p.16

Wonderful. Let's turn the court room into an edition of the Jerry Springer Show - when are the cameras coming in?

Everyone agrees that when it comes to sentencing the judge should take into account the effect of the crime on the victim’s relatives, but he or she does not usually hear from them directly to understand the effect of their loss. p.16
[My emphasis]

Really? No evidence to back this statement up - no references to any studies or surveys - just a bald statement.

Let's examine this statement - those people without any living relatives matter less then those with. I disagree. A murder is a serious crime whether the victim is a working parent with a vibrant social network or an isolated elderly widow* - and the sentencing should not distinguish between the status of the victim.


* Spot the stereotyping.


Charlie Williams said...

Apologies to all those people who receive a feed of this site by email. I didn't realise that the report I was (cut and paste) quoting from used a different character for the space character than normal - one that prints perfectly well on the website but gets printed as ^A in the text-only email.

I really hope this isn't a common occurance. I really don't want to have to edit every quote I pull from now on to replace all the 'spaces' with proper spaces.


Anonymous said...

You are right, thanks for posting. It is just NuLabour's version of Jerry Springer show. It is also their attempt to give us a few circuses to detract attention from manifest failures to do anything about levels of crime. It also reflects their love of celebrity culture and the idea that everyone wants to be in the limelight.

Thanks also for pointing out the nasty little bit which will allow influential people to pressurise the prosecution to take action against suspects.

Charlie Williams said...

A further thought that occurred to me.

A while back it was considered best practise for all those involved in traumatic events to be offered access to a psychiatrist to discuss how they felt about the incident and generally talk it through. It was assumed that this would help - it didn't.

The incidence of post traumatic stress disorder was higher in those who had talked through the incident with a professional* and described their emotional reactions, than in those who hadn't seen the psychiatrist.

I wonder whether those people who take advantage of this offer to speak in court about their emotional response to the crime will suffer from exactly the same problem several years down the line.


* that is not to say that psychiatrists are bad for you - merely that the normal techniques cannot be used as preventative medicine.

Scribe said...

Mmm, interesting. I'll try to read through the consultation in detail soon.

Sentencing of the offender is just one plausible result. My initial concern is that it's often very easy to clamp down on something else important in the wake of the cries of a bereaved family. I am, right now, thinking of various calls to curtail the Internet after it has been seen as a "dangerous tool", but I'm sure there are other examples.

The danger here is that if we make choices in light of an extreme case, under very emotive reasoning, then we risk those choices being very specific, and potentially uninformed on a much wider level. It's difficult to remind ourselves what we have to lose at times when it feels like we've already lost so much, but I feel it's a necessary task.

Perhaps a formal reply to the consulation from this blog (as an "organisation") could be put together - would that give the reply more "weight" than one from an indiviudual? Perhaps the speculated name change is in order first ;)