This Government are committed to strengthening victims’ rights and ensuring that comprehensive support is available at the right time. One of my key priorities is that victims clearly understand and receive the rights provided by the code of practice for victims of crime (victims code). This has never been more important than it is now, when we are facing the huge challenges that coronavirus has brought. The criminal justice system and the sector have been tested, but we have continued to respond robustly to the needs of victims.
In fulfilling a commitment made in the cross-government victims strategy, I am today laying a revised victims code, as well as publishing the Government response to the consultation on improving the victims code, which closed on 28 May 2020. To ensure that there is enough time for criminal justice agencies to implement the new code, I will tomorrow be laying a statutory instrument that will bring it into force on 1 April 2021.
We received over 500 responses to our two consultations on the code, which we have carefully considered. I would therefore like to place on record my sincere gratitude to those who took the time to respond and for providing their personal experience, knowledge and candour about what works well and what does not. These views have informed the key changes we have made to the code.
For the first time, the code has been structured so that victims are its primary audience. With its focus on 12 clearly defined overarching rights, we aim to ensure that victims will both understand and be aware of the level of service they can expect to receive from criminal justice agencies. Simplifying the code is a vital step in our efforts to rebuild victims’ confidence and trust in the criminal justice system and their engagement with it, knowing that they will receive the right support at the right time.
We know that victims find having to engage with different contacts frustrating, potentially exacerbating the trauma they may be experiencing. We have made the frequency and method of communication a more victim-led process and have amended the code to make it clear to service providers that they must try to minimise the number of different people victims have contact with. Where possible, they should offer a single point of contact for information.
We have also included information about the ability to access support; without the need to report incidents to the police; at any time during the investigation and prosecution; if the case is stopped or at the end of the case. While the code retains existing eligibility categories for access to enhanced support and information, we have made clearer that service providers have the discretion to offer these enhanced rights to victims who fall outside the scope of the existing categories.
We have introduced an opt-out framework for the victim contact scheme, for victims of a sexual or violent offence, where the offender is sentenced to a term of imprisonment for 12 months or more. All eligible victims will now be automatically referred to scheme which gives vital updates on offenders as they serve their sentence, including their potential release from prison. We have also listened closely to victims of unrestricted mentally disordered offenders, who told us of their difficulties in trying to get information about an offender’s management and potential release from hospital. To help alleviate their trauma, they will receive a new right to be assigned a victim liaison officer, rather than having to contact hospitals directly. This means these victims will be treated in the same way that victims of restricted offenders are, ensuring consistency in the level of information and the way it is provided to them.
For the first time, we have also specifically referenced the support available to victims of foreign national offenders and included information on the role of coroners, as well as for families bereaved by murder or manslaughter abroad.
Recognising that for many victims the impact of the crime may not be immediately apparent, we have redrafted the code to provide agencies with more discretion on when a victim personal statement (VPS) is offered, and revised information so that victims better understand the process and are fully aware of the wider implications of making a VPS. Victims will also be able to request a copy of their VPS for them to refer to in future.
By the time the new code comes into force next spring, we will have embedded the necessary operational adjustments with criminal justice agencies, supported with victim-focused practitioner guidance, to provide clarity on roles and accountabilities. We will continue to work closely with police and crime commissioners and local criminal justice partnerships to improve compliance with the code and also produce a child friendly version of the code to help children better understand their rights and the support available to them.
As Victims Minister, I believe that the revised victims code both demonstrates our continued commitment to supporting victims of crime at a time when they may need it most as well as give them a louder, clearer voice in the criminal justice system process. The code will also form the basis of our forthcoming consultation on a victims law.