4 February 2015
Originally published in The Solicitors Journal
John van der Luit-Drummond
The former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has renewed calls for a law spelling out the rights for victims as they journey through the criminal justice system.
Speaking at the Better Courts 2015 National Conference, Sir Keir Starmer QC said that though much has changed in the last three decades, such as prosecutors being allowed to speak to the victims of crime, victims were “still playing catch up, and the catch up has been just little bits bolted onto the [criminal justice] process”.
“We need to consider a radical review,” said Starmer. “The first step is a victim’s law; to actually have a statute that sets out what victims are entitled to. There has never been a statute in our legal history setting out victim’s rights. The Labour party committed to this five years ago…the coalition government has also said that it will pass a victims’ law. The positive to that is that the best chance for a victim’s law being passed in our legal history is in the next five years.”
The Labour party candidate for Holborn and St Pancras said that he still believed the adversarial system was a good test for “getting at the truth”, but added that “for nearly 200 years the only interest that we have looked at is for the prosecution and the defence”. He continued that “victim’s rights are not really framed in terms of access to justice”.
Using, as an example, the recent and high-profile investigation into child grooming offences in Rotherham, Starmer suggested that the tests used by the police and the CPS to ascertain whether there are realistic chances of a successful prosecution are designed for the “model victim” and not the “real victim”.
“Did the victim come forward and report the crime straight away or did they delay? The unwritten assumption being that they would go straight to the police station. If they don’t then it is less likely they are telling the truth. Did this victim go back to the perpetrator? The unwritten assumption being that no one in their right mind, after suffering that kind of abuse, would go back. Did this victim engage in drugs, drink, or commit offences themselves? If so then they are less likely to be credible in front of a jury.”
Starmer admitted that the confidence to come forward and give evidence was a major stumbling block for many victims, but went on to add: “Of those that came forward we then had a filter that operated in such a way that the more vulnerable you are the less likely the criminal justice system is to take on your case. Those tests are set up for the model victims, not real victims.”
In addition, the Doughty Street Chambers silk said that while the criminal justice system had some “fantastic independent sexual violence advisers” there needed to be greater governance around victims’ services.
“There is no governance around victims’ services,” said Starmer. “It is nobody’s job to decide what is needed. There is no policy rules in force. You don’t have to be accredited to be a councillor in the criminal justice system. You don’t need to know anything about the criminal justice system. You could really muck it up for everybody.”
“There is no rule requiring you to train. Most of them are trained because there are voluntary training schemes, but you don’t have to. You can just rock up and be an independent domestic violence adviser taking victims through the process without any knowledge or training. It is very hard to find a service to a section of the public which is as ungoverned and unstructured,” he added.
A former defence barrister, before becoming DPP, Starmer was careful not to suggest that the rights of victims should trump those of defendants: “Nothing I say about victims is ever intended to take away the rights of the defence…but it was not until the 1990s that we started talking about victim’s rights.”
Starmer, who was named as QC of the year in the field of human rights and public law in 2007, and who won plaudits for his pro bono work in challenging the death penalty throughout the Caribbean and Africa, added: “We often say, particularly when we are abroad that we’ve got the best criminal justice in the world. Yet it seems to me that if those are some of the features of it then we still have some work.”