UK

Families of murder victims 'need more help'

  • 6 July 2011
  • From the section UK
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The law should guarantee that families can bury murder victims within a month, a government commissioner has said.

Louise Casey said swift release of a body should be part of new guaranteed rights for people bereaved by homicide.

The system should treat families with respect, rather than leaving them "trembling in its wake", she said.

Ms Casey's call comes after Milly Dowler's family criticised how it was treated during her murderer's trial.

Milly's father, Bob, said he felt as if the family had been on trial because of questioning from Levi Bellfield's legal team.

In her report, victims' commissioner Ms Casey said the law in England and Wales must recognise the situation that families found themselves in when a loved one had been the victim of murder, manslaughter or a road death caused by criminal behaviour.

She said a "victim's law" could ensure that the criminal justice system protected the interests of families, such as through guaranteed meetings with prosecutors at critical stages of the legal process.

Ms Casey said she was "staggered" that such rights currently relied on "charters, codes, goodwill and guidance", which are not legally binding.

"Entire lives are taken over by the criminal justice system," said the victims' commissioner. "If we do that we need to give them greater dignity."

She said ensuring coroners released a body back to a family within 28 days, unless there were exceptional circumstances, was a key right that needed enshrining.

"The way that the system operates can leave families trembling in its wake. Bereaved families lose all control over their loved one as the Crown appropriates the body and determines when it can be returned.

"Their home may become a crime scene, and in the next weeks, months and years, their loved one's death and who was responsible for it, may become the focus of their lives.

"Yet the bereaved family doesn't determine or control any of this. The investigation, trial, verdict and sentence, appeal, parole process all happen around them."

Court questioning

Ms Casey said victims should also have a right to copies of a judge's sentencing remarks or trial transcripts. One family told her they were given an estimate of £4,500 for a copy of the trial transcript - money they did not have.

Reflecting on the questioning in the Milly Dowler case, she said: "I think what it did is throw the spotlight on this rather odd scenario where in one court we have rich people pursuing their civil injunctions... whereas down the road in the criminal court a family is being stripped in no uncertain terms of some of the moments with their family."

However, Ms Casey also reiterated that she is not seeking a change in the adversarial courts system, or looking to erode the rights of defendants.

Paul Mendelle QC, former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, told the Today programme he fully sympathised with the trauma that families sometimes go through, but defended the role of barristers in court.

"It's wrong in my view to vilify the defence counsel for doing his job," he said.

The Director or Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has also welcomed the report and announced that families will now get additional meetings with lawyers during the court process, including with the barrister presenting their case.

He said: "I already require prosecutors to treat victims and witnesses respectfully and to ask the court to stop inappropriate questioning of prosecution witnesses. But I now want the CPS to go further and enhance the service offered to bereaved families."

"I wholeheartedly agree with the principle that bereaved families should not experience 'avoidable intimidation, humiliation or distress' in the court process."

'Cost of death'

More than 400 families were interviewed as part of the victims' commissioner's review and she said the results showed the "devastating and ongoing" impact of a homicide.

The survey found that the average cost to a family was £37,000, because of loss of earnings or having to move home after a death.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the government had increased funding for specialised homicide support workers.

"We can never make things right for families bereaved through crime and it would be foolish to pretend that any level of support could ever achieve this," he said.

"But we can do more to ensure that families get the help they need and that the practical impacts of bereavement are minimised.

"We are working on our review of all victim support arrangements - this will include consideration of victims' services, entitlements and redress, designed to ensure that that our time, money and best efforts are targeted at those in greatest need."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan told the BBC he welcomed many of the report's recommendations and said the current treatment of victims' families was "quite appalling".

"The message for us in politics is to make sure the rules, standards and practices are designed to have empathy for the bereaved family," he said.

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