All too often at Victim Support Scotland, we hear from people affected by crime who are left feeling invisible in the criminal justice system with no say in how it could be improved to better serve them. Add in that victims in England, Wales and Northern Ireland already have a Victims’ Commissioner in place, it creates a very real sense that Scotland is lagging behind in terms of victims’ rights.
While the latest Programme for Government states a commitment to “prepare for the necessary legislative process to appoint a Victims’ Commissioner,” the Scottish Government has not indicated a timescale for when this will happen. Victim Support Scotland want to see a Victim’s Commissioner Bill brought before the Scottish Parliament by the end of this parliamentary year, to allow for an appointment to be made during the life of the current parliament.
There is a clear mandate, from victims themselves and a commitment in the manifestos of the majority of political parties in the Scottish Parliament, for a Victims’ Commissioner for Scotland. So why are victims being made to wait so long to have their voices heard?
Now is the time for the creation of an independent and properly resourced Victims’ Commissioner for Scotland that will allow the voices, experiences and views of those affected by crime to be heard and to influence positive changes across the justice system, without resulting in the withdrawal of the vital support services that are based in courts and communities.
As it currently stands, mechanisms for victims to feed into developments in the justice system are subject to the changing priorites of ministers on a parliament-to-parliament basis. During the last parliamentary session, the Victims’ Taskforce was established with the remit to, ‘co-ordinate and drive action to improve the experiences of victims and witnesses within the criminal justice system, whilst ensuring a fair justice system for those accused of crime.’ But there remains a question mark over whether this group will be reconvened during this session.
It is vital that the experiences of people affected by crime are used to give victims a forum to advocate themselves for the changes they believe would make the most difference for them. Enshrining the role of a Victim’s Commissioner, who has a duty to directly consult with people affected by crime, would make Scotland a world leader in taking a victim-centred approach to justice.
Currently, victim support organisations like VSS are under pressure to scrutinise as well as work with criminal justice agencies like the police and court service to make sure they are honouring their commitments to victims’ rights as well as driving improvements. This often takes away key resources to directly support victims in our courts and communities.
A key duty of the Victims’ Commissioner should be to formally monitor the performance of these justice agencies in relation to their responsibilities as set out in the Victims’ Code for Scotland and the Victims & Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014. Through this process, the Commissioner could make recommendations for improvements to ensure that acceptable standards of service are being delivered for people affected by crime.
With a Victims’ Commissioner, Scotland has the opportunity to emulate the success of its’ Children and Young People’s Commissioner and to lead the way globally in terms of victims’ rights, putting them at the heart of the justice system.
Kate Wallace, Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland