Unanimous support for bill to enhance victims' rights

Wednesday 5 October 2011, 2:00AM
By Simon Power

Justice Minister Simon Power tonight (October 4, 2011) welcomed Parliament’s unanimous support for the first reading of a bill to overhaul victims’ rights.

The Victims of Crime Reform Bill delivers on the Government’s promise to expand victims’ rights and make the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of victims, who are in the system through no fault of their own.

“I simply don’t buy the argument that empowering victims will disrupt the court’s dispassionate assessment of the facts,” Mr Power said.

“Victims have a stake in the criminal justice system too, and this Government has worked hard over the past three years to recognise that.

“What’s become clear is that victims can find the criminal justice system bewildering and can feel sidelined by a process which sees the state prosecuting offenders on their behalf.”

The bill makes a number of improvements to victim impact statements by giving victims greater scope to express their feelings in their own words, and giving victims of serious offences the automatic right to read their statement in court.

Mr Power said because there are no guidelines governing victim impact statements, case law has evolved around what cannot be said, including an outline of the offence and opinions or comment on the offender.

“Victim impact statements are often the victim’s only chance to directly address the offender, and victims should be able to do that without fear that their words will be censored so they don’t offend them.”

The bill will also allow photographs and drawings to be attached to a victim impact statement.

“This recognises that children may find it easier to draw how the offending has affected them, while families of murder victims would be able to use photos to show the court, and the offender, how they want their loved one to be remembered.”

The bill also:

• Makes improvements to the Victim Notification System (VNS) by widening the eligibility of victims who can receive notice through the system, increasing the number of victims who receive notice about bailed offenders, and expanding the information victims receive about offenders on short-term sentences and home detention. There will also be a greater emphasis on making victims aware of the VNS and the importance of keeping their details up to date.
• Requires the Ministry of Justice to develop a Victims Code to improve the responsiveness and accountability of justice sector agencies to victims. This includes making improvements to victim-prosecutor communications, including ensuring prosecutors take reasonable steps to contact all victims of serious crime, and meet victims of sexual violence, as well as family members of victims who have died before trial, and ensure victims are informed of changes to charges sooner. A newly established Victims Centre, within the Ministry of Justice, has already begun work on the code.
• Requires justice sector agencies to have complaints processes and report annually to Parliament with a summary of their services for victims and complaints received.
• Ensures that victims’ rights in the adult criminal jurisdiction are applied in the Youth Court jurisdiction.

The bill is the latest development in the Government's comprehensive work programme to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system.

Other achievements in this area include 13 additional services for victims of crime paid for by the $50 Offender Levy, and the rollout of on-the-spot Police safety orders.

Before the election the Government will further this work programme by announcing proposals to improve the way child witnesses are treated in criminal proceedings.

The bill has been sent to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee for public submissions.

Previous Government announcements on victims of crime can be found here.