It is hard to remember a reform to the UK’s criminal-justice system which was not geared towards giving victims a ‘voice’ or ‘presence’ in the courtroom. This week, yet another victim-centred reform was announced, one which would allow for victim-impact statements to be read out in court by victims or their relatives. Victim’s minister Dominic Green said that the reforms would ‘give victims a real say in proceedings’.
Victim-impact statements are nothing new. They have been a part of the sentencing process since they were introduced under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. They involve the victim, or the family of a victim, giving a witness statement to the prosecution describing the emotional effect that a crime has had on them. They are read by the trial judge and will almost always be mentioned in the course of their sentencing remarks. Under the new reforms, the statement would not be read by the judge in private, but in open court before the sentencing commences.
It has long been said that victims lack a ‘voice’ in criminal proceedings. Since the 1990s, when then UK home secretary Jack Straw bemoaned the exclusion of victims from the courtroom and argued for a more ‘victim-centred approach to criminal justice, successive governments have tried to reform the system to allow for a greater role for victims. This latest reform is just the most recent, and perhaps the most explicit, manifestation of this trend towards giving victims a greater ‘voice’ in criminal proceedings.
But this trend could be disastrous for criminal justice. One of the best things about our system is that every defendant gets treated in the same way. Everyone, whether they are accused of the most heinous murder or the pettiest theft, is given the same rights and protections through the application of due process. They are led into the dock, asked if they want to plead guilty or not guilty, and then the trial will eventually proceed with the swearing-in of the jury. It is completely unemotional. This can be an extremely difficult spectacle for complainants and their families, who have to watch while someone who is accused of causing major, often tragic, upset to their lives is given the respect embodied in a fair and objective trial.
The criminal trial is no place for the victim to vent their emotional distress. Fundamentally, the trial is not about them at all. They are not a party to the proceedings, nor should they be. The trial process is about determining the fundamentally social question of whether a defendant deserves to be deprived of their liberty and, if so, for how long. A victim’s emotions have no place in deciding what should be an objective and impartial question, determined not in the name of the victim, but in the name of society.