What is the Victims' Code?
The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (Victims’ Code) is the statutory code which sets out the minimum level of service victims should get from criminal justice agencies. Victims of crime face having their rights severely downgraded as part of a review of the Victims’ Code in 2011.
The Victims’ Code applies to all criminal justice agencies, including the police, Crown Prosecution Service, Courts Service, and the Probation Service. It sets out the minimum level of service which those agencies must provide to victims of crime.
The Code was established by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and came into effect on 7 April 2006. Victim Support lobbied for it to be introduced, and it represented a huge step forward by giving victims of crime statutory rights for the first time.
The Code stipulates what each criminal justice agency must do for victims, and when they must do it by. It tells victims exactly what they can expect from the criminal justice system, and allows them to hold the system to account if they don’t get the service they are entitled to.
Key rights under the Code include:
- the right to be kept informed about case progress by the police (at least monthly)
- the right to hear when a suspect is arrested, charged, bailed or sentenced
- the right to apply for special measures in court for vulnerable or intimidated victims
- the right to be told when an offender will be released, if they have been sentenced to a year or more in prison for a violent or sexual offence
- the right to be referred to Victim Support
What's the problem?
- The Victims’ Code isn’t perfect. Victims tell us that, despite having a statutory right to timely information, communication about the progress of their case is often poor.
- This can leave them feeling isolated and frustrated, and undermines confidence in the criminal justice system.
- The Code also has other shortcomings, like the fact that it sets a low benchmark in terms of the level of service provided; does not apply to victims of antisocial behaviour; and has a weak complaints mechanism.
- However, despite its limitations, the Code has helped to improve services for victims and has raised the standard of victim care across criminal justice agencies.
- The Victims’ Code is now (March 2011) under threat as part of a Ministry of Justice review of support for victims and witnesses. The Government has already removed the duty on local criminal justice boards to report on how they comply with the Code. There is a danger that the Government will seek to downgrade the Code or abolish it altogether. This would mean that victims of crime had no statutory rights to a decent level of service from the criminal justice system.
What's the solution?
- Victim Support firmly believes that the Victims’ Code should be retained, and that the Government should take action to make it more robust and credible.
- The provisions in the Code should be improved, so that criminal justice agencies give victims information more quickly. This is particularly important when victims are waiting to hear whether a defendant has been granted bail or remanded in custody, as the victim’s safety can be at risk. Time limits for telling victims of these developments should be reduced, and 24-hour periods should replace working days in the Code.
- The Government should establish a single point of contact for victims’ complaints about the criminal justice system. This would give victims a simple way to complain if they don’t get the service they are entitled to. The MP ‘filter’ on victims’ complaints should also be removed (currently the final arbiter of complaints under the Code is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Victims can only lodge a complaint to the Ombudsman via their MP).
- The Code needs to be properly monitored so that criminal justice agencies are held to account for their performance. Either a single agency, or the current criminal justice service inspectorates, should monitor compliance with the Code and report on how closely agencies are adhering to it.
- Victim Support would like to work in partnership with the Government to make the Code more effective, and to ensure that all criminal justice agencies better serve victims of crime.