Victims of crime get chance to speak in court under new code
Victims of crime in England and Wales are to be given a greater opportunity to speak in courts.
A new Victims' Code will entitle victims to personally address offenders to explain how a crime has impacted them by reading a statement in court.
Currently, judges read such statements in private with only parts being read aloud by prosecutors.
Ministers said the move would "make sure victims' voices were heard" but Labour called the code "toothless".
Judges already take personal statements into consideration when determining the length of a sentence.
But the Ministry of Justice says only 9% of victims know they are entitled to make such a statement. Under the revised code, all victims will be told of their entitlement early in the criminal process.
The code will also give businesses - who are victims of 9.2m crimes each year - the chance to write an impact statement.
And victims will be automatically referred to victims' service by the police and given a clearer means of compensation if they are not given support.
Victims minister Damian Green said the move would "give victims a real say in proceedings".
"It will enable them to feel that the whole process is much fairer and they have literally had their say before the judge passes sentence," he said.
Javed Khan, chief executive of independent charity Victim Support, said the new code was a "big step" towards "making the criminal justice system truly responsive".
"We warmly welcome this decision which gives victims the choice to explain to a court in their own words the personal and emotional impacts a crime has had on them and their families, a process we know can help victims cope and recover from crime," he said.
Victims' commissioner Baroness Newlove, whose husband Garry was attacked and killed by youths outside their Warrington home in 2007, also welcomed the code, which she said helped clarify the rights of victims.
"The onus is now on criminal justice agencies to deliver on their promises.
"No victim should have to fight for the right to be treated with dignity, sensitivity and respect," she said.
Gill Veysee's son Darren was stabbed and killed four years ago. She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it would have been "empowering" to read her impact statement out in court.
"If you're able to stand up there in court and read it out yourself then the impact on the perpetrator, I would hope, would be that much greater."
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the new victims' code was "an unenforceable piece of paper" that would be ignored.
He said impact statements, which had been introduced by Labour, had a "really important role to play in conveying to courts the anguish and harm the crime has inflicted".
But he said the code would do nothing to ensure the statements were offered to victims and made available in court.
"With their toothless code, there'll be no one taking charge of the impact statement, meaning it continues to be sidelined. The necessary change can only be achieved by Labour's victims' law," he said.
Victims are able to participate in the sentencing process in almost all common law countries.
Sally O'Neill QC, who was formerly chairman of the Criminal Barrister's Association, said impact statements were always read by the judge and the lawyers even if they are not read out in court.
"As far as the judge is concerned, it's one of the many considerations they have to take into account in the sentencing process and so, although it is one of the considerations, the influence that it has on the actual sentence that's passed depends on each individual case."