UK Politics

Victims' Code criticised by watchdog

Police officer with handcuffs
Image caption The ombudsman said a code for victims that was not being followed was "of little use"

Victims of crime are being put under extreme duress, leading to injustices, due to a lack of awareness of the Victims' Code by those working in the justice system, a watchdog has warned.

Parliamentary Ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor said investigation of complaints had exposed a lack of understanding.

It came as ministers unveiled plans to revamp the code, which tells people what to expect when reporting a crime.

Victims' minister Helen Grant said "getting this right" was a priority.

'Basic rights'

Dame Julie, whose office looks into complaints of individuals being treated unfairly or receiving poor service from government departments and other public organisations, said: "Victims, including those who have been subjected to serious crime, such as sexual assault, have spoken to us about how they have been left feeling powerless and shattered.

"Failures by agencies to recognise even the most basic rights of those victims under the code, such as being told that the charges against the defendant have changed or that an appeal was taking place, have added to their distress and undermined their confidence in the criminal justice system.

"From customer inquiry teams to legal advisers, from court ushers to area directors, knowledge of the code and of the standard of service victims have the right to expect is alarmingly thin on the ground."

She called on the Ministry of Justice and all justice agencies "to take a stronger lead in ensuring that, as the code is finalised, staff are aware of their responsibilities."

She added that "a code that is not being followed is of little value".

All victims are currently offered support once they have experienced a crime, but in 80% of cases they do not take it up.

The Ministry of Justice has proposed automatically offering help to those who "most need it", such as victims of the most serious crimes.

'Confusing and intimidating'

Victim Support chief executive Javed Khan welcomed the draft Victims' Code but said the charity was "worried that victims will fall through the cracks".

"We hope that police and crime commissioners - with their responsibilities for victims - will want to go further than this to ensure that all victims have the support they need, when they need it," he said.

Ms Grant insisted victims of crime need "more help navigating a confusing and often intimidating criminal justice system".

"Too often they tell us they feel they are treated as an after-thought or that the system made their already horrific experience worse," she said.

She pointed out the "total revamp" of the code was one of her "main priorities" and she was very aware of the importance of "getting this right".

"Victims will now be able to understand and prepare themselves for their entire journey through the criminal justice system, from reporting the crime to after the trial," she added.

"It easily explains what they should expect from the system and who to demand help from if it is not being provided."

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