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Change is in the air regarding the culture of victims’ rights in Europe

By SOPHIE DONOGHUE

BRUSSELS – Proponents of victims’ rights say the European Commission should do everything in its power to assist member states to implement the EU’s recently adopted directive. The latter establishes minimum standards for the level of protection, support and access to justice for victims across the EU.

The directive’s main aim is to ensure that all victims of crime benefit from minimum standards throughout the EU, said Victim Support Europe at their conference, “Putting victims’ rights into practice” at the European Parliament here on 26 November. The directive obliges the 27 member states to ensure that all victims receive the same basic rights regarding criminal proceedings and have access to victim support services, justice and compensation, no matter what the crime or where it was committed in the EU.

The directive introduces a number of new standards.

Family members. It applies not only to the victims of crime but to their family members.

Individual assessment. The directive stresses an individual approach to the victims of crime. To identify vulnerable victims and their special protection measures, victims are entitled to get their specific needs assessed based, for example, on personal characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation, or the type and circumstances of the crime.

Stronger obligation to victim support. The member states are obliged to ensure that victims and their families “have easy access to support services which are confidential and free of charge”, said Kathleen Walker Shaw, rapporteur on the issue for the European Economic Social Committee.

Clear information and translation. Member states are obliged to provide information to victims such as whether a case will proceed or not, and to provide the information in a language the victim understands.

Scope. In cases involving child victims, the latters’ rights and needs must be taken into account in all cases, with child victims offered the opportunity to take an active role in criminal proceedings and to have their testimony taken into account.

Elsewhere, the directive obliges the member states to see that practitioners in the sector (e.g., police, prosecutors, court staff) get special training to sensitize them to the needs of victims and, moreover, to deal with them in an impartial, respectful and professional manner. The directive gives rights to every victim, even if they have not reported the crime or if they are not cooperating with authorities.

National capitals have until November 2015 to implement the directive, with the European Commission acting as the watchdog if they do not respect the deadline. Ingrid Bellander Todino of the Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice policy told the conference that the Commission will supporting the directive’s timely implementation via:

  • guidelines for member states,
  • expert meetings and workshops to kick off implementation
  • consultation with stakeholders
  • project funding through grants and contracts

Ann Moulds, a stalking victim and a campaigner for victims’ rights, said the EU should provide the necessary resources to do this, while most speakers stressed the urgency of a “culture change” in Europe’s justice systems vis-à-vis victims.

“We must change the culture of the justice system; we need a fundamental culture change that recognises victims and their families”, declared Benjamin Jansen, head of prevention, gambling and victim policy at the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice. “Why can’t a victim track progress of his or her case on the internet, as you can a parcel in the post?”

Roughly 50 percent of crimes go unrecorded as people do not have faith in the system, according to experts at the conference.

“We need to export a better understanding of the procedure, as crucial evidence is often lost since crimes are not reported closer to the time [of their incidence]”, observed Shaw, adding that information exchanges between the member states must be improved to reverse the prevailing justice administrative culture in Europe.

 THE UPSHOT: The directive may be the beginning of a shift from victims-as-peripheral-element to victims as central participant in criminal cases – the “culture change” that many so assiduously seek.
While noble in their intent, the directive’s goals could be problematic in a couple of ways. For example, it strives so hard to be politically correct in a generalised sense that the ultimate effect could be stymied. Requiring sensitivity training for police, prosecutors, court staff and other “practitioners” involved in victim cases sounds great on paper – who would object? – but its “expression” could become highly subjective. Respectful behaviour is pretty easy to spot; identify someone’s “sensitivity” to an issue or person is not.
Another problem is the directive’s sweeping scope that gives rights to every victim, even when they have not reported the crime or have not turned to authorities for investigative help. That sounds like a recipe for future lawsuits if victims seek retroactive retribution based on distant events.

About Sophie Donoghue

Sophie Donoghue was deputy editor and policy analyst at SECURITY EUROPE during 2012-2013 and now freelances for the publication from London. She can be reached at: sd@seceur.info

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