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Victims' rights reform unveiled

The right of victims of crime to directly confront the offenders who damaged their lives in court is to be enshrined in law, the Government said.

Publicly-funded lawyers are also to be barred from taking on serious sex offence cases unless they have undergone specialist training.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said a reform package - including the creation of a Victims' Information Service - would ensure the "highest emphasis" is put on those who suffer at the hands of criminals.

Under a code introduced last year, victims are able to choose to explain to the court and offender how a crime has affected them by reading out a Victim Personal Statement which is taken into account by j udges when determining the sentence.

Labour has previously unveiled its own proposals to put that and other rights into legislation.

Other proposals being set out by the Ministry of Justice include a r equirement for taxpayer-funded advocates to undergo specialist training before taking part in sexual abuse or rape trials.

The "one stop" information service is expected to include a helpline and dedicated website, while courts are scheduled to be adapted to ensure separate waiting areas for victims and accused and consideration given to expanding the powers of watchdogs.

Mark Castle, chief executive of Victim Support, gave a particular welcome to the suggestion that more effort will be made to help vulnerable witnesses give their evidence without having to be in the courtroom.

"Children and other vulnerable victims and witnesses should not have to face the trauma of giving evidence in a court building, unless they choose to," he said.

"Our witness service team, who work behind the scenes in court, see every day just how distressing it can be for them, especially if they are the victim of a violent or sexual crime.

"It is essential that all lawyers involved in any sexual offence case have specialist training, especially if a trial involves the cross-examination of a child. We will continue to work with the legal profession to secure this.

"Putting victims' rights in law sends a clear message to police, prosecutors and the courts that addressing the needs of victims is central to their work - it cannot be an optional extra.

"We will continue to push for policy makers to make sure people affected by crime get the help they need and respect they deserve."

Mr Grayling said: "Our criminal justice system can be daunting, and victims, especially the most vulnerable, can find it traumatic and difficult to know where to turn to for advice and support.

"For the first time we will create a system that puts the highest emphasis on victims' needs and sets out their rights clearly in legislation.

"We are also making it easier for them to find whatever it is they need by establishing one simple source of information and help - be it tracking the progress of their case, applying for compensation, knowing what to expect in court, or understanding the range of support available to them."

But shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan MP accused the Government of consistently " letting down" victims.

"Slashing compensation for innocent victims of violent crime, leaving the position of Victims Commissioner vacant for almost a year and then making her part-time, wanting to knock half off prison sentences if criminals plead guilty, closing down rape centres and courts which make it more difficult for victims and witnesses to get justice, cutting resources for Victim Support and more.

"This announcement looks like it's been cobbled together on the back of an envelope, in the dying months of this Government.

"In contrast, Labour's Victims' Taskforce has been in place for almost a year, has consulted widely and has met many of the key groups and a number of victims and witnesses to help it draw up plans for a 'Victims' Law'.

"Our proposals will deliver the real culture change needed, putting victims and witnesses at the heart of our justice system."

Victims' Commissioner Baroness Newlove welcomed the changes but said the Government needs to go further by allocating a dedicated "care manager" to individual victims, and questioned how legislation would have helped the victims of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal.

"I welcome the Government's new enhanced package of care for victims. It's good to see they are listening to what victims need but I do want to know how and when their promises will be delivered," she said.

"A new law cannot be used as a quick-fix but it must be delivered properly and with teeth. I want to see how it will be better than the existing Victims' Code and how it will ensure that victims are treated with dignity and respect.

"Recently, we've seen how the abuse of victims in Rotherham was covered up in such appalling ways. We heard how victims were treated with such prejudice that they were not believed by those who were there to protect them.

"I'd like to know how a Victims' Law would put a stop to this dismissive, ignorant and collusive behaviour.

"The new online 'one-stop-shop' for victims is a good idea. But I don't think it will put an end to victims being pushed from stranger to stranger to find out what is happening to them.

"That's why I want to see the Government going further by introducing one person, a victim care manager, who can tell them face to face what to expect and where they can go for support.

"I also want to see victims getting every penny of compensation they are owed from criminals. Not in drips and drabs but upfront. Many victims rely on this money to help them get their lives back together and support their families through the trauma of crime."

David Tucker of the College of Policing said: "The criminal justice system must be victim focused and we support these announcements. It is vital that victims receive care and support from the moment they report a crime to police.

"In December last year police signed up to a Victims' Code which sets out enhanced support for victims of the most serious crimes and those who are persistently targeted.

"The College of Policing is working with forces to make sure standards are developed for officers and police staff that ensure the best possible care for victims. The College's Code of Ethics is clear that the particular needs of victims and witnesses have to be at the centre of police work."

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