Victims of Crime Bill a great step foward, but far from free

From November 16th, victims will for the first time have legally enforceable rights

Minister for Justice  Frances Fitzgerald: much vaunted Burglary of Dwellings Bill.  Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: much vaunted Burglary of Dwellings Bill. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

From November 16th, victims of crime will for the first time have legally enforceable rights.

State agencies such as the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and An Garda Síochána will be obliged to keep victims informed about their cases, prosecutors will have to explain why cases are dropped and measures enacted to protect vulnerable victims of crime from re-victimisation.

The protocols are included in the EU directive on victim’s rights and are due to be transposed into Irish law by the Victims of Crime Bill 2015.

And the best part? All of this will be free. At least that’s what the impact analysis of the Bill states – that no additional resources will be needed to meet the dozens of extra obligations which will apply to our already strained prosecution services.

In this regard, it is similar to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald’s much vaunted Burglary of Dwellings Bill, which introduces harsher sentences for serial burglars and makes it much more difficult for them to get bail. Again, the analysis states that once the law is passed, it will cost nothing to enforce.

Unlike tax cuts or infrastructure expenditure, it is often difficult to predict the costs of criminal justice legislation. So instead of trying, the Government pretends it is free. It prefers to reap the benefits from passing popular laws now and worry about the underfunded services and overcrowded prisons later.

This is a shame because the Victims of Crime Bill and the EU directive are, on paper at least, fantastic for victims.

As Maria McDonald of the Victims’ Rights Alliance says, “for the first time victims will have rights and for the first time they will be able to go to court to protect those rights. We’ve had a Victim’s Charter in this country since 2010 but it has no legal force. This has legal force.”

The directive requires that from the moment a victim makes contact with gardaí they must be given information about victim support services and referred to those services by the gardaí if they request it.

If a victim is assessed as particularly vulnerable, they will be granted special protection measures like being allowed give evidence in court from behind a screen or through an intermediary.

Keeping victims informed

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the Bill is also the simplest; the State will be obliged to inform victims about what it is doing with their cases. Gardaí will have to inform them about the progress of the investigation and of any court dates. Once someone is sent to prison, victims will be informed of their release date or if they escape.

The Bill will also extend the right of information to cases where the DPP decides not to prosecute. At the moment the DPP informs victims of the reasons it is not prosecuting a case only when a fatality has occurred. The new law will extend that measure to all cases and introduces a right of review.

Paying for crime

Every aspect of implementing the Bill and directive will cost money. Gardaí will need extensive training on how to assess and refer people to the correct victims’ organisation, work that would ideally be carried out by a trained counsellor.

The out-of-date Pulse system will also need a radical overhaul to be able to provide the information required in the law.

Similar costs will be faced by the DPP as well as other organisations with prosecution powers like the Garda Ombudsman Commission and the Health and Safety Authority.

And if the Government fails to implement any of these measures it faces heavy fines from Europe or the prospect of civil actions by victims. We are already behind. There is no chance of the Bill passing the Oireachtas before the November 16th deadline imposed by the EU.

Therefore the Government will technically be in breach and could be sanctioned from that date. However, a six month grace period is usual when it comes to directives and, unlike some other EU countries, Ireland has the legislation almost ready to go.

And then there are victims’ groups like the Rape Crisis Centre, One in Four and Support After Homicide. The directive states that access to such organisations should be “free” and available “before, during and for an appropriate time after criminal proceedings”. Given that victims are going to be referred to these organisations by gardaí, it’s a fair assumption that their workload is set to drastically increase.

Thankfully it seems that Minister Fitzgerald has realised this. Funding to the Victims of Crime Office, which partially funds many victim support groups was increased by 21 per cent, bringing it to a total of €1.5 million. Cosc, which helps fund domestic violence groups received an extra €500,000, bringing its total to €2.4 million.

As the VRA points out, this may seem like a lot but the Victims of Crime Office funds about 50 organisations. This means an extra €6,000 per organisation for the year, assuming all the extra funds trickle down. Similarly, Cosc funds 40 organisations, splitting down to just €12,500 apiece.

The Government should be commended for finally bringing in a victims’ Bill, even if it is at the behest of the EU. However it also needs to realise that the money needs to flow if upholding victims’ rights is to be more than just empty promises.

Conor Gallagher is editor of courts news agency CCC Nuacht

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