Victims of crime law planned by government

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Chris Grayling says the reforms will place emphasis on the needs of victims and set out their rights "clearly"

Crime victims in England and Wales are to be given legal rights for the first time, the justice secretary has said.

Chris Grayling says the proposed law will see victims kept informed about their case and courts will allow most to provide a personal impact statement.

Separate plans will see a victims' information service set up next March and more child witnesses film their evidence before a trial starts.

Labour is to outline its own proposals for victims in the coming weeks.

Range of support

At the moment, a victims' code sets out guidance for courts, police and the probation service. The proposed law, which will be subject to a bill in the next Parliament, will enshrine several of its measures into legislation.

The code's entitlement for victims to tell the sentencing judge and offender how a crime has impacted their life through a statement is among the measures that will become law.

The information service will include a helpline and website and aims to guide victims to support services.

Ministers will also consult on plans to pay compensation up front to victims - many have had to wait years in the past - and courts will be modernised to include separate waiting areas for victims and defendants.

Publicly-funded lawyers will also be required to have specialist training before working on serious sex offence cases.

Mr Grayling said the current legal system could be daunting for victims.

"Victims, especially the most vulnerable, can find it traumatic and difficult to know where to turn to for advice and support," he said.

"We are also making it easier for them to find whatever it is they need by establishing one simple source of information and help - be it tracking the progress of their case, applying for compensation, knowing what to expect in court, or understanding the range of support available to them."

Child witnesses

The government is hoping to extend a pilot scheme in three Crown Courts that allows children to be cross-examined before trials, away from court, with their evidence filmed and later shown on video during a trial.

Concerns had previously been raised about how children were affected by the court process - with reports of one victim who was cross-examined for 12 days by seven defence barristers.

If successful, the scheme will be apply to all child witnesses by the end of 2017 and may also be extended to include vulnerable adult witnesses.

The chief executive of the charity Victim Support, Mark Castle, said: "Children and other vulnerable victims and witnesses should not have to face the trauma of giving evidence in a court building, unless they choose to."

He added: "Our witness service team, who work behind the scenes in court, see every day just how distressing it can be... especially for victims of a violent or sexual crime.

"Putting victims' rights in law sends a clear message to police, prosecutors and the courts that addressing the needs of victims is central to their work - it cannot be an optional extra."

Victims' Commissioner Baroness Newlove welcomed the plans but questioned how they would differ in practice from the existing victims' code.

"A new law cannot be used as a quick fix," she said.

"Recently, we've seen how the abuse of victims in Rotherham was covered up... I'd like to know how a victims' law would put a stop to this dismissive, ignorant and collusive behaviour."

She suggested the information service would not "put an end to victims being pushed from stranger to stranger to find out what is happening to them. That's why I want to see the government going further by introducing... a victim care manager".

'Back of an envelope'

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw says the announcement may be seen as an attempt to pre-empt Labour plans for a victims' law.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the party's taskforce had consulted widely over the past year.

He said the government had let down victims by cutting compensation for innocent victims of violent crime and leaving the position of victims' commissioner vacant for almost a year, before making the role part time.

Mr Khan said Downing Street had also wanted to reduce prison sentences by half if criminals entered a guilty plea, closed down rape centres and courts, and cut resources for Victim Support.

"This announcement looks like it's been cobbled together on the back of an envelope, in the dying months of this government," he added.

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