Becoming a victim of crime can be traumatic.
Ensuring victims understand what’s happening during police investigations, court cases, and when someone is sent to prison or released is really important in order to avoid retraumatisation.
The Department of Justice and Equality recently published a new Victims’ Charter. The charter hadn’t been updated since 2010 but in 2018 the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act came into force. The new law, known as the Victims’ Rights Act, means everyone – including the police, prosecutors, courts and others – is required to look after victims in ways they didn’t before.
That includes making sure victims of crime are informed about their rights and choices throughout their search for justice.
Those of us who campaigned for the new law on victims’ rights wanted to ensure that victims had access to important information about decisions in criminal investigations and court cases and that this information was provided in a timely and sensitive way.
We also wanted to ensure victims know who can support them at every stage in the criminal justice process.
The new charter does offer advances. Among other things, it clarifies the role of the coroner and explains, for the first time, how the Department of Foreign Affairs can help victims abroad. However, in its current form, there’s still room for improvement.
A Clear Guide
The Victims’ Charter now sets out clearly all the information that a victim of crime needs about their rights and what services are available to support them.
The charter tells you what you can expect from government agencies who work in criminal justice, including An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
It’s your right to be in contact with these organisations when you are a victim of crime and they have to speak or write to you in a sensitive and clear way, and provide interpretation if English isn’t your first language. They also have to take your specific needs into account and treat you with dignity and respect. If they don’t, the charter tells you who you can make a complaint to.
The charter explains the role of a variety of actors beyond the Gardaí and the DPP, including the Probation Service and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal. It also looks at the role of the coroner, who conducts independent inquiries into unexpected, unexplained, violent or unnatural deaths.
It clarifies that the coroner establishes the facts around the death, rather than establishing guilt or otherwise. This is a common misunderstanding for families of victims of crime, who can sometimes want or expect more than the coroner is currently qualified to answer. (There are many ways the coroner’s function could be improved in Ireland but that’s for another time.)
The new charter outlines for the first time what advice and support the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can provide if you are a victim of crime abroad. This is a welcome step. Being a victim of crime in another country can add further stress and confusion to an already difficult time.
Another positive is that the charter summarises and provides contact details for a range of victim-support services. This includes a long list of non-governmental organisations and charities designed to support victims of particular types of crimes such homicide, domestic abuse and sexual assault.
Increasing awareness about what services are available is crucial to ensuring victims can access them when they need them. Victim Support at Court (V-Sac) is a charity that provides volunteers to accompany victims when they attend court. They recognise that facing someone in court who has caused them harm is a difficult experience and risks retraumatizing some victims when they are not properly supported.
V-Sac reported that although there is an increase in people seeking their assistance in the last few years – they assisted 1,365 victims and witnesses in 2018 – many people are still unaware of their service.
So, it’s good to see them included in the Victims’ Charter.
A Step in the Right Direction, but Problems Persist
The Victims’ Charter is a good step in the right direction. It outlines information, including the contact details, of all the government agencies that might be involved when a crime occurs, as well as NGOs and voluntary groups that provide support. It also tells you who you can complain to if they’re not providing the support they promised.
However, it’s disappointing to note that the charter is not yet available as a video for those with lower literacy levels – a group of people who are also more likely to become victims of crime – or those with dyslexia, or the visually impaired. On the other hand, the Crime Victims Helpline may provide some help in this regard.
Worryingly, if you are dissatisfied with the DPP – for example, if they decide not to proceed with a prosecution in your case – you must complain to the DPP. The same goes for the Courts Service.
With An Garda Síochána, you can complain to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), but there are many issues with GSOC, such as the fact that they often “lease back” complaints to the Gardaí for investigation.
It is also deeply unsatisfying that no external complaints mechanism is listed for the coroner’s service. That’s not the fault of the charter. It’s because there is no complaints mechanism.
This lack of an overall complaints mechanism for victims underlines the need for an Ombudsman for Victims of Crime – an agency to take complaints no matter who is being complained about. Victims need to be able to expect a certain standard, and they need an independent mechanism for complaints if those standards are not met.
That said, this charter – while overdue – is welcome. We have come a long way in the protection of victims’ rights while more, as always, could be done.