Victims To Be Given Their Say Before Their Attackers Are Sentenced

Victims of serious crime are to be given a much bigger voice in the justice system, The Scotsman has learned. They will get the opportunity to provide a statement in court before their attacker is sentenced, under plans revealed by Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary.

He said that, for too long, victims had been treated as “baggage” by the system, but the statement would give them the chance to say how the crime had impacted on their lives, whether emotionally, physically or financially. In murder cases, the family of the victim would have the right to provide a statement.

In all instances, the statement would have to be taken into account by the sheriff or the judge, and it could result in a longer sentence. A notification scheme, requiring prosecutors to tell victims when their attackers will be released from jail, will also be extended.

Mr MacAskill acknowledged steps had already been taken to improve the position of victims – and he pledged to ensure their rights would no longer be neglected by prosecutors and the courts. “The past Executive flagged up the needs of victims and the person who perhaps drove it most was the current Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, who realised that, as a community and as a legal entity, Scotland had forgotten the rights of victims.

“Nobody did it deliberately, but victims were seen as baggage, almost a nuisance. They were seen as an unnecessary encumbrance. We have to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. We have to realise they are the ones who have suffered, that they are not an encumbrance but that they have rights,” he said.

The move follows a two-year pilot scheme at courts in Edinburgh, Ayr and Kilmarnock. An evaluation found that six out of ten families of victims of the most serious crimes, such as murder and death by dangerous driving, wanted to provide a pre-sentence statement.

However, the Executive-commissioned research, which was published in March, raised concerns that victim statements, which are already allowed south of the Border, risked prejudicing the accused and could falsely raise the expectations of victims. Some victims also decided not to give statements for fear of reprisals.

Some of those concerns were echoed by experts last night. Dr Susan McVie, a criminologist at Edinburgh University, said: “I think in cases where victims don’t get the chance to describe the impact the crime has had on them, or cases where the victim is no longer around to speak out, this can be a very positive thing. In theory, it’s a good idea, but many victims don’t bother to take it up.”

She went on: “Does it mean offences are treated differently in cases where a victim statement is read, compared to when cases are not read out? Research tends to focus on the effect on victims, but this is something that I think we need to look at.”

However, most victims who signed up to the pilot scheme thought it was worthwhile, which is why Mr MacAskill plans to extend the scheme to all cases heard before a judge in the High Court or a sheriff and jury.

“This will give victims of serious crimes such as murder, rape or serious assault the right to make a statement telling the court about the emotional, financial and medical impact a crime has had on them, after conviction but before sentencing,” he said. “It’s important, however, to be clear – the statements would be just one factor that judges will take into account when passing sentence.”

The Executive already commits £4million a year to Victim Support Scotland, which helped to operate the pilot schemes between November 2003 and November 2005.

Mr MacAskill acknowledged that rolling out the pilots will require extra funding, which is why the project will not officially be given the green light until after the government’s forthcoming spending review.

David McKenna, the chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said: “The final stages of a court case, particularly in cases such as rape and serious violence, are often the most distressing to victims of crime. At present, the defence can say anything they like because nobody can say ‘that’s not true’.

“The family will sit in court and hear lies and see nobody bothering to correct them because it doesn’t affect the prosecution. They will hear someone being sentenced to five or six years and think that, if the court had been told that wasn’t true, he would have got seven or eight years.”

Under the pilot schemes, prosecutors told the victim or their family they were entitled to give a pre-sentence statement. They were then given a form and offered the help of Victim Support to fill it in. The form took the victim through the different areas where the crime might have impacted on them. “Theoretically, there’s nothing to stop the victim writing their statement on the back of an envelope,” Mr McKenna said.

Bill Aitken, MSP, the justice spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “I think these ideas have considerable merit and are worthy of support.”