'It’s about time we focused on the needs of the victim'

The body was found by police divers

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is moving through Parliament - Credit: Archant

Anyone who has been present in a court in recent years might have noticed part of a sentence dished out by magistrates or a judge is a so-called victim surcharge.

This fee is almost always applied as part of a sentence in all cases, and typically it will be set at around £20.

The money raised from these levies is pooled and distributed via the Ministry of Justice to fund victim services via grants to Police and Crime Commissioners.

For several years the victim surcharge level has been set at this rate, often failing to reflect accurately the harm caused by the acts of the perpetrator (£20 does not buy much of a service this days).

So I was delighted last week when the Government announced a raft of measures aimed at securing more convictions, preventing further crime and make neighbourhoods safer.

Among the plans for a Victims’ Law was a proposal to raise the victim surcharge to as much as a £100 minimum.

Such a plan would give a considerable boost to the resources available for victims of crime. And as the person responsible for commissioning victim services in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, I think this is a great idea.

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That was not all Justice Secretary Dominic Raab unveiled on Thursday, as he attempted to shift the focus of the criminal justice system firmly onto the needs of those affected by crime.

Proposals include a requirement for prosecutors to meet the victims of certain crimes before making a charging decision, in order to understand the impact of the offence.

The consultation also outlines plans for community impact statements, which would provide an account for the collective impact of a crime, including in cases where there is no clear victim – such as attacks on public places or anti-social behaviour.

As part of a greater drive for transparency and accountability, the Government also published the first ‘performance scorecards’ containing data on police and justice agency effectiveness. Making this information available should identify and address concerns. It will include key information on the volumes of cases going through the system and the time taken for investigation, charging and completion at court.   

It was also confirmed that victims of sexual and modern slavery offences will be spared the trauma of giving evidence in court through the national roll out of a scheme enabling pre-recorded evidence across all crown courts in England and Wales.

In my view these reforms are long overdue, and represent some relatively simple steps which have the potential to vastly improve victims’ experience of the criminal justice process. I raised concerns about lengthy waits for justice before Covid hit, and I’m afraid the pandemic has made the situation even worse. At least soon we will have a better understanding of what is causing these problems and how we might make improvements.

Another piece of legislation which is closer to being written up in the statute books is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which last week moved forward to the reports stage.

If enacted, this sometimes controversial bill will deliver many key changes that matter to our communities, such as a new serious violence duty that will require agencies to work together to tackle serious violence, increased sentences for murderers and other serious offenders and increasing the penalties faced for those who assault emergency service workers.

I helped influence the development of this legislation by giving evidence to the committee stage of this bill, explaining the misery and upset caused by some unauthorised encampments in Devon and Cornwall.

The bill, if enacted, will also create new offences on causing death by dangerous driving under the influence of drink or drugs and of causing serious injury through careless or inconsiderate driving. Having seen first hand the irreversible damage drink and drug driving has on affected families I welcome this. We have to send the message that such behaviour on our roads is unacceptable.

All too often the focus of the criminal justice system appears to be on the offender. These important pieces of law have the potential to really swing it in favour of supporting the needs of the victim, reinforcing confidence in the system and making more resources available for those harmed by others. They can’t come soon enough.

If you have been a victim of crime in Devon, Cornwall or the Isles of Scilly practical and emotional help and advice is available, 24 hours a day, via Victim Support via webchat at www.victimsupport.org.uk or by phone on 08 08 16 89 111.