Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Victims need 'proper consideration'

Judge Graham White's conversation was overheard by Geraldine and Peter McGinty

Baroness Newlove, the Victims' Commissioner, has said victim impact statements must be given proper consideration after a judge was reportedly overheard saying they make "no difference" during a parole hearing for two murderers.

Geraldine and Peter McGinty, whose son Colin was stabbed to death 13 years ago in Merseyside, claimed to have overheard Judge Graham White make the comments in a conversation with lawyers.

The 21-year-old's parents told the BBC they were heartbroken to hear the comments made over the video link, after submitting a statement which explained that they were "serving a life sentence of heartache and grief and pain" as the killers applied to be transferred to open prisons.

Mrs McGinty said: "The judge turned round and said to someone else in the room: 'I feel so very sorry for these families.

'"'They make these statements thinking they are going to make a difference, but they make no difference at all. Someone should tell them'. The heartache that we go through to do these statements, to be told they don't make any difference.'"

Lady Newlove, whose husband Garry was kicked to death in Warrington in 2007 by a gang vandalising his car, said: "It truly saddens me to hear of another family not treated with basic humanity and respect.

"Victims pour their hearts into these statements to make sure they do their loved ones the best possible justice - they should never be dismissed like this.

"It's the only way for a victim to express the terrible impact of a crime and how a decision such as a move to open conditions could affect their lives. That's why it should be respected and given proper consideration before making a decision."

Judge White told the BBC he was sorry for the effect his comments, which he said were made in a "private conversation", had had on Mr McGinty's family, but added that while the statements had an impact, they cannot affect the parole board's judgment of the prisoner's risk.

Parole Board chairman Sir David Calvert-Smith said there would be an investigation into the comments.

In guidance issued by the Ministry of Justice last year a victim impact statement, known as a Victim Personal Statement, was defined as giving victims " the opportunity to explain how the crime affected them and their family, and what the impact of release will be".

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the judge was "wrong" when he suggested that v ictim impact statements make "no difference".

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that without hearing from the victim the parole board could not find out from the offender whether he or she understood the damage done to a family.

He also said the statements could influence licence conditions if somebody is to be sent to an open prison or allowed day release.

The Labour frontbencher, whose party has called for a victims' law, went on: "I think victims should have a role to play.

"Too often... rules are written in codes of practices, or in charters or in manuals.

"They are simply paid lip service to rather than professionals... understanding the cultural change that needs to take place."

He added that victims need to feel at the "heart of the justice system".

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