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Is the law really on the side of serious crime victims?

ONLY when somebody finds themselves the unfortunate victim of a serious crime or major injustice do they become fully aware of how the law works in the UK – and how it can leave them feeling let down and ignored.

When we consider the Criminal Justice System in the UK, we often wrongly judge its success simply on the conviction rates. Improved figures are held up by Government leaders as evidence of improved policing – falling conviction rates are usually highlighted by the media as abject failures.

But is it that simple? The answer is no.

In my work for Neil Hudgell Solicitors, as a specialist in handling claims against the police for unlawful arrest, unlawful detention, assault and human rights breaches, I see behind the headline figures, and deal with those who are affected long-term by errors made in the rush to secure quick convictions.

That work this week took me to the MAMAA 2014 conference, a fascinating day focussed around improving victims’ experience of the Criminal Justice System.

Listening to a superb range of speakers, it was abundantly clear that simply totting up the number of crimes with a tick by their side for should never be used as a barometer of success.

There is so much more to ensuring the Criminal Justice System runs as it should.

I see the long-lasting impact on the people who are wrongly accused of crimes they haven’t committed through my work. Often, the error comes about as police have one sole focus, putting a name against the crime and getting them locked up.

In almost all of my cases, the victim and their families suffer long after an apology is made. Their reputation is always damaged, sometimes almost beyond repair, when they have been completely innocent.

Established in 1993, MAMAA is a national, registered charity which offers support for victims of violent crime and individuals and families who have been bereaved by homicide.

It is certainly doing sterling work,  providing training and development for those working with victims, such as Family Liaison Officers (FLOs), as well campaigning to policy makers to consider the needs of those bereaved by acts of violent crime.

MAMAA stands up for the innocent, those who have come to rely on the justice system, not through choice, but through a terrible turn of events which has changed their lives forever.

For these people, long-term support, communication and understanding of what they have experienced is often just as important as a conviction – something those in the justice system often seem to forget.

MAMAA sees first-hand how many people remain affected by the impact of violent crime for many years, and feel let down, and even worse ignored, when they are experiencing the most painful time of their lives.

The conference communicated a very clear feeling of just how crucial it is for such families not to be forgotten, to ensure they are always listened to, taken seriously, and updated throughout a case relating to them.

It brought admissions from senior policing figures that big changes are needed to do just that at all times.

Commander Graham McNulty, of the Specialist Crime Investigation team at the Metropolitan Police Service, said the Criminal Justice System ‘still has a long way to go’, but is ‘heading in the right direction’.

Describing the work of FLOs as ‘one of most demanding and most important roles within the police service, he added: “The pendulum has swung, we are putting victims before the needs of the investigation. Victims need to have confidence they can come forward, and be believed.”

Being believed is not the only thing victims and their families require though. They need an understanding of the impact the crime and their loss has on their lives, not just in the weeks, month, or year after their loss, but for the rest of their lives.

Victims’ Commissioner The Rt Hon Baroness Helen Newlove of Warrington, whose husband Garry was murdered by three youths in 2007 after confronting a gang of drunken youths who were vandalising her car, spoke passionately about the need for a planned new ‘Victims of Crime Law’  to ‘have teeth’.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling says it will give crime victims in England and Wales legal rights for the first time, ensuring they are kept informed about their case, and include the entitlement tell a sentencing judge and offender in court how a crime has impacted on their life through a personal victim’s statement.

Given a recent case, where a judge was overheard saying the personal statement of the parents of a man murdered in 2001 made ‘no difference at all’ as to whether one the murderers could move to an open prison, it is a particularly topical issue.

Describing the ‘traumatic’ and ‘harrowing’ nature of making such statements, Baroness Newlove called for them to be ‘taken very seriously’, saying they must always be read out in full.

“Offenders’ rights are really powerful, we want victims’ rights to be powerful too, they can’t be diluted by law,” said Baroness Newlove, who also called for compensation to be paid in advance to victims’ families, and not ‘in dribs and drabs’

‘The victims I meet feel confused, dismissed and traumatised because of failings of people to do their jobs and support them.  It is important victims are put first, and whilst I welcome the Victims’ Law, it must be right. It must have teeth.”

It was hard to disagree with a word she said.  A victim is defined as a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or any other event or action.

Whatever has made them a victim, it is not something they have chosen to be. They deserve to be heard, helped, and supported fully.

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