‘Victims law’ will change face of criminal justice, says Starmer
Victims’ rights are ‘an access to justice issue’, and the next five years sees the ‘best ever chance in our legal history’, of a victims’ law being passed, according to Keir Starmer QC.
Speaking at the ‘Better Courts’ conference, Starmer said during his time as DPP, he was often contacted by victims ‘in a distressed state’, because of their experiences in court.
The current system particularly fails victims of sexual abuse and grooming cases, he said. ‘I had victims writing to me at the CPS, when we needed them from one trial to the next, saying, “I am never ever going to court again. I don’t care what happens to the defendants. I don’t care what happens to my friends.”’
He described meeting the distraught parents of Jane Clough, a nurse who was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, Jonathan Vass, after she reported him to police for raping her. When Vass suddenly offered to plead guilty to her murder, on condition the rape charges were dropped, her parents found themselves bewildered about how to respond. ‘As far as the judge was concerned, it didn’t make any difference because he was clear Vass was going to get a long sentence, anyway.’ But for her parents, it was devastating to see the rape charges left on the file. ‘Instinctively, they felt it was wrong. He had only killed Jane because she had reported him for rape. It is particularly difficult for bereaved victims to take on board what’s happening in court. Jane’s parents were given information but they just couldn’t take it in. They couldn’t work out how they felt about it.’
Starmer, who is now standing as a Labour candidate, is chairing the party’s victims’ taskforce, but said the idea of a victims’ law is also supported by the other parties, and has a strong chance of being passed during the next parliament.
Victims have traditionally been overlooked in the criminal justice process, and are now ‘playing catch up’.
‘It was not until the 1990s that we even began to talk about victims’ rights. Little bits of reform have been bolted on to try to improve the victim’s lot, but we need to step back and recognise the issues, and make things better for victims. There is a lot of legislation about what the prosecution can do; a lot of legislation around the rights and responsibilities of defendants, but no corresponding legislation around victims.’
Keir Starmer: ‘victims are playing catch up’
The trick would be to give greater protections to victims, without undermining the rights of defendants to a fair trial, he added.
Speaking at the same conference, Lord Justice Ryder, the judge in charge of modernisation of family justice, said the treatment of ordinary people in the civil justice system also needed reform.
Courts needed to adapt to meet the needs of litigants in person, rather than expecting them to turn into ‘ersatz lawyers’, he said. It was ‘frankly nonsense’ to expect litigants to understand family or civil procedure rules. ‘We need to think again about plain language, fast track solutions, for litigants in person both in family and civil proceedings. We have to redesign our processes for a public in need of a solution.’
The quality of justice will be protected by making it ‘simpler and faster, and more available to individuals’, he said.
While the family courts have already been the focus of reform, the Court of Protection ‘is next in the firing line as the court in need of significant change’. The court has an important role in protecting vulnerable people, but has attracted criticism for being unnecessarily secretive and cumbersome. You could, Ryder suggested, ‘put a red line though its rules and regulations and start again’.