The role of the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales – set up in 2004 to promote the interests of the victims of crime – needs to be strengthened if it is to be effective, argues a report co-written by the Essex Law School’s Professor Maurice Sunkin together with Professor Pam Cox and Dr Ruth Lamont.
As it stands, the Victims’ Commissioner, currently Dame Vera Baird, lacks the necessary powers to carry out her statutory obligations to make sure the Victims’ Code (which sets out the standards victims can expect from the criminal justice system) is followed.
The report identifies significant gaps in the current powers of the Victims’ Commissioner compared to others such as the Children’s Commissioner for England and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Dame Vera Baird says it is her intention to make the Victims’ Code work properly for all victims, but she is currently unable to properly scrutinise victims’ rights and entitlements or to effectively hold criminal justice agencies to account.
The report states that “Currently the commissioner has no legal power to ensure that [victims’] rights are protected and that duties are performed. Since no other body has this power, this leaves an important enforcement gap.”
“This gap creates ambiguity and uncertainty. If victims’ rights are important, why is it that they cannot be enforced? If agencies have duties, why is it that they cannot be compelled to perform these duties? If rights cannot be enforced, how can victims be confident that their rights really do matter?”
The report proposes new powers which would compel criminal justice agencies to co-operate with the Victims’ Commissioner and take action where needed. The commissioner would also have a “last resort” power to bring legal action on behalf of a group of victims or to test the law “in the public interest” – if the courts found in favour of the commissioner, victims could be entitled to compensation.
There is growing consensus across the political spectrum that victims’ rights need to be enshrined in law and the Government has pledged to introduce a ‘Victims’ Law’ which will enshrine these rights. The report argues that such rights need to be enforceable and monitored.