Victims should be at centre of criminal justice, not an afterthought – Tom Wood

In England and Wales, changes to the way Parole Boards make decisions are being brought in following the outcry over the proposed release of serial rapist John Worboys
In England and Wales, changes to the way Parole Boards make decisions are being brought in following the outcry over the proposed release of serial rapist John Worboys
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The recent furore over a dental student given an absolute discharge for sexually assaulting a young girl demonstrated the victim’s needs were not met, writes Tom Wood.

Stories about victims of crime seem to be everywhere at the moment and it’s good news – it shows we are heading in the right direction.

One odd tale was about the seemingly inexplicable case of an 18-year-old boy, a dental student, who having been found guilty of repeated sexual assaults of a young girl, was then given a “wholly exceptional” absolute discharge, thus avoiding a conviction or being placed on the Sex Offenders Register.

Naturally the victim’s parents were bewildered and the media have been in full cry. The sheriff in the case has been the focus of particularly bitter recrimination with calls for his sacking along with the usual tropes about “out of touch judges” and “class-based judgements”.

It does sound bizarre and at first sight the sheriff in question seemed “bang to rights”, but I’m wary. I don’t know the sheriff involved but in a previous life I crossed paths with a number of judges and sheriffs and, on the whole, found them a pretty shrewd bunch.

They may look like relics from a bygone age sitting on the bench in their black gowns but beneath the 18th century wigs are usually very sharp 21st century brains. And don’t fall for the old “Ivory Tower” slur either. Sheriffs see more of the harsh realities of life in a week than most of us see in a year. But don’t take my word for it, pop into your local Sheriff Court on any weekday, it’s free and you will get some idea of the range and complexity of the cases they have to deal with – it’s mind boggling.

READ MORE: Labour demands change in how sexual assault crimes are dealt with by Scottish courts

I don’t know the full details of this particular case and I suspect many of the critics don’t either, but two things are clear: the decision of the court was inadequately explained – too little, too late – and the victim’s needs were not met.

One sentence from a media statement given by the parents of one of the girls jumped out: “No one asked me how my daughter is.” And that, I suspect, is at the heart of this sorry affair. Perhaps had the victim’s family been included in the process, had their views been taken into consideration, their additional hurt and pain as well as this furore could have been avoided. Most victims of crime, even serious crime, don’t want revenge or even punishment, they just want to be respected and kept in the picture, they want to feel at the centre of the case, not an afterthought.

READ MORE: Euan McColm: When a sheriff goes easy on child abuse we must speak out

On a more positive note, it’s good to see the Parole Board in England and Wales moving to strengthen the role of victims in their considerations. Not only will the new procedures give victims a right to request reconsideration of a release decision, but victim contact schemes will be streamlined to make them easier for victims and their families to access. It’s a pity it took the debacle of the serial taxi rapist John Worboys to bring about these changes but at least it’s a step forward.

We are surely moving in the right direction and, as a next step, we could perhaps take a lead from the world of child protection where the principle of “getting it right for every child” or GIRFEC underpins everything that’s done. It’s a valuable point of reference in complex cases for it places the child at the centre of all consideration. It’s also a failsafe, it’s notable that in the child protection disasters we have had, GIRFEC has seldom been properly implemented.

Perhaps we could develop a “getting it right for every victim” scheme (GIRFEV). There, it has a ring to it – a new acronym and it’s only Monday.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable