Should the families of manslaughter and murder victims be allowed to speak in court before sentencing?
Under government proposals bereaved relatives will be able to address the judge after the conviction but before sentencing to say how the crime has affected them.
Constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman hopes to pilot the scheme in five areas to monitor its success before possibly introducing it to all courts.
Should hearing how the crime has affected families have any influence on sentencing?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:
What a completely stupid idea. It is all part of political correctness. If someone is guilty they should be sentenced the same as another guilty party for a similar crime. If a victim is more forgiving than another this should not affect the sentence, which this move implies will be the case. Sentences are far too light as it is.
Jim, York UK
If the courts got sentencing right in the first place, we wouldn't need this debate. Courts need to be harsh with first offenders as it just might deter them from re-offending and deter other would-be criminals in the first place.
Neil Small, Scotland
All too often the punishment won't fit the crime .Yes, the victims should be heard before the verdict. Criminals should be made to hear what they have accomplished, those who think otherwise must be solicitors; Whose bread and butter will do them no good with long sentences.
Perhaps it shouldn't affect the sentence that's handed out, but surely we have to do everything to help victims of crime get closure, and if they get closure by confronting the criminals in court, and making them listen to what impact their crime has had on people's lives, then so be it!
We agree that family, loved ones and friend should be able to speak out. The perpetrators have the chance to speak, so why not the people who have been directly affected by the perpetrators crime?
Hilary and Pete, Worthing
I think that families of murder victims should be allowed to confront the convicted murderer, but not in court, and it should have no bearing on the sentence - the law should be about justice and punishment - not vengeance.
Linda Callcut, Ely, England
Yes they should have a right and say. They are victims as well. Its basically a closing for these people to have the last say. We do this here in America and it's a right and a closer for these people.
Jan, Kent, USA
There seems to be a lot of confusion between "justice" and "revenge" here. Look at Pete Berry's comment: "judges who are supposed to be on the side of the victim". Erm, no, they're not. Sorry. Justice is not about being on anyone's side, about emotion or about whether my murdered child is "more important" than yours. You shouldn't be able to tip the balance on the scales of justice because you're a good orator, or are genuinely distraught, or are left relatively more financially worse off than the next victim. That's not "fair", to use a relevant if over-used term.
Ian H, UK
I have. Very recently. And I still maintain this idea is wrong. Families making such statements will, understandably, expect the sentence to be increased. This will surely lead to "pressure to perform" on the family and a feeling that you failed your loved one should the sentence be lower than you hoped. The idea being portrayed by those who support this is that we should be punishing for the effects of the crime, not the crime itself. Logically this means the murder of someone with no family or friends should be punished less than the murder of a father of 3 with a loving wife.
Chris Telford, UK,
Isn't that the job of the prosecuting lawyer?
Jack, Largs Ayrshire
The law should lay down the penalties and the judges should exact them. If an address to the court as envisaged could have an effect on sentence then it is unfair and probably illogical. Why should someone who kills a friendless and relative less person get a lesser sentence than someone with people willing to speak for him?. Also, do we really think that a sentence should be reduced if a relative asks for mercy for say, a murderer? If it is not going to affect sentences it is hard to see what the point is.
I believe that the family of the victim should be able to speak out only to balance the trial. In every trial I watch in the US, the criminal has an unlimited amount of family and friends telling the jury what a good person they are; they attend church; do community work etc and before you know it the jury has forgotten that the criminal killed or molested numerous people. All of a sudden the victims are forgotten. If the courts allow the defence to put on character witnesses so should the prosecutors. Don't forget the victims!
N. Brian, West Virginia USA
Many of the posters' opinions here seem to be "letter of the law" types - as in, This is the law as written and emotions should have no bearing...etc. Hey, it's easy to take the moral & legal high ground when events (like crime, murder, rape) don't affect you or your family personally. Even if it gives the survivors nothing but a chance to vent their spleen, they should be allowed to speak in court. If the Accused have rights in Court, then the Victims/Survivors deserve them, too, in the UK, America, anywhere.
Mark, Chicago, USA
If convicted then that person should be made to face the victim/s of that crime if the victims wish it. Perhaps if some of these people were to come face to face with the victims of their actions then it might have an effect on their attitudes. Victims should only be allowed in as part of a trail if they have direct evidence that affects the outcome of the trial.
Gordon Walker, Brigg, UK
No way. This is a dreadful Americanism. Courts should dispense justice according to the law, not emotion. As Russell says, please enforce the law as is! David
David, Tonbridge, UK
Why not go one step further. Do away with the trial, no, do away with the court completely and just have a lynch mob. I always thought that the courts were there to deal with facts not emotion and sentiment
Mark J, Stafford UK
Victims of crime are sidelined by our justice system, ignored, out of the information loop, disregarded even though they are at the heart of the matter and it is justice for them that is at stake. Victims are treated as mere witnesses, undermined, subject to unwarranted attacks, abuse, and slander. This doesn't mean the system will cease to fail them in any way whatsoever, but that being the case we should have the right to have our view of the situation go on the permanent record of the case. And that goes for all crime, burglary, rape, assault as well as murder.
Yes, families should have a voice, but this should only be done through the voice of the judge, who (I would hope) would have the common sense to appreciate when comments from 'the victims' family are appropriate and when they are not. I would imagine that in the vast majority of cases, comments from the family are appropriate, but as John, England has quite rightly pointed out, the performance of the family should not take precedence over the circumstances of the true victim.
These are absolutely ridiculous proposals by, what is turning out to be, a government that has lost its way. Application of the Law is better done by the trained professionals and those who have spent a working lifetime in the legal profession. Any involvement by the victim's family is more likely to add to their future problems than by accepting the court's decision. Most 'civilised' people are well aware of the way in which serious crimes affect families. Those of the legal profession perhaps more so because it's what they have to deal with every working day. These proposals are merely another form of excuse for not overhauling the whole question of crime and punishment in this country. A court of Law is no place for the distressing modern habit of the 'group hug', it is where the Law is applied dispassionately and - as far as possible - fairly.
Peter Smith, Kirkcaldy, Fife
Some of our laws are old but that doesn't mean they have not been well thought out. If bereaved relatives are to be allowed to influence a judge's sentence, why bother having judges?
Cyril ord, Berwick upon Tweed, England
No, for the same reasons others have mentioned. Having said that, there could possibly be more of a role for victims of crime to be able to confront perpetrators with the consequences as part of the justice process after sentencing has been decided (although possibly not for murder or manslaughter). That might be useful in the kind of cases where the convict currently just 'serves his time', then goes on his way and doesn't have any other outcome from his crime.
Liz, London, UK
How can it be a good thing when the fact that the victim has a grieving relative affects the court's decision? Do people want to see lesser penalties where the victim has no family or friends? Does this make the crime less serious? Is our envied UK legal system going to be reduced to responding to the emotional outpourings of third parties? I view the very idea with contempt. The law must stand above individual value judgements.
I have read about victim-perpetrator reconciliations that have worked with offences from bullying to mugging and burglary, and which reduce re-offending by giving the criminal an idea of the true consequence of their actions (as well as apparently providing closure for victims). But the victim should not be obliged to sign up for this. And I am not sure victim involvement can work in emotive cases such as murder or child rape where rationality cannot possibly be expected. The point of the legal system is to provide justice that is consistent and impartial. Only if the victim's circumstances are truly relevant should we go down this road.
Elizabeth, LA, USA
Of course it should! In fact the family should have a say in the sentencing too. That's what I call justice.
No-one doubts the effect of violent crime on the victims and survivors but how does the weight of grief really help the courts? Will judges hand out stiffer sentences where families can demonstrate significant grief (and less if the families suffer quietly and privately)? The proposal is yet more nonsense perpetrated by a government whose thinking becomes more woolly with every passing month.
Keith, Leeds, UK
The keyword here is 'victim'. The true victims at a murder trial are the relatives of the murdered person - of course they should have a say in court. Surely a 'fair trial' is one that allows comments from both sides. All too often a jury hears a supposed murderer's view (via a lawyer, usually paid for by taxpayers' money) without the view of the murder victim (because he/she is dead, obviously). The murder victim's relatives are the only voice he/she has got.
L Chapman, Chudleigh, UK
My brother was brutally beaten to death, the perpetrator got the sentence changed from murder to manslaughter and got just 6 years, whilst I will mourn for life, and worst of all, I had to sit and watch this travestry of justice, with the very real feeling of wanting to stand up and shout, "not fair!" but knowing I couldn't. I personally think we the victim's families should have a say, if only to help us feel that we've somewhere to go to express our horror at the crime committed.
Darren, Gloucester, UK
As long as it's only done after a conviction then I don't see the problem. As long as guilt has been established then I think the families are entitled to their say.
Yes - It's not just the victim of a crime such as murder, manslaughter and rape that suffer it is also family, loved ones and friends. They suffer with the consequence of these crimes too. Why shouldn't a convicted criminal understand and hear how they have affected other people's lives. Perhaps this understanding may deter any offending in the future?
Peter Halsey, Brighton
Families shouldn't be allowed to affect the sentencing. If they feel they must tell the perpetrator how hurt they are, then maybe that should be allowed, as it may help them cope better.
Mike, London UK
Is this, along with all the other changes to the legal system, just an effort to destroy it once and for all? I can think of no other explanation for such seeming insanity.
No doubt defence lawyers will find a clause in the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent the bereaved families from having their feelings put on record.
Barry, Wickford, Essex
I agree those close to a victim of murder or manslaughter should, if they wish (and purely at their discretion) be given the opportunity to inform the court of the impact of the crime on their life. This should not be to influence sentencing (and certainly not before the verdict). I see two potential benefits: firstly, it gives the 'consequential' victims a voice in the process and may aid them in coming to terms with the crime and secondly I think criminals should have to face up to the consequences of their actions, which may help in their rehabilitation. (Note of caution: where a crime has been committed out of revenge or hate, the pain caused to the victims family may actually be relished by the convicted).
KP, West Midlands
Should the criminal courts be about personal revenge? What if the family of the victim believe the convict must be insane and should be in a hospital, not a prison?
Edwood, Malvern UK
I think that victims of crime should be allowed to speak in court before the verdict is reached.
Todd, Virginia, USA
Who will decide who the family and other bereaved are, especially in cases where the accused and victim are related? More misdirection from government I think. If they actually managed to enforce the laws we have it would be a start.
Russell Holmes, Glasgow
No way. This government is completely out of control. As many said, the families will always be distraught. What they will say is obvious. The only thing it will bring is pressure onto judges to follow public opinion as opposed to following the law. Why not then push it further and just throw the accused to the crowd? This is utter madness.
Anthony, London, UK
I am a barrister who during university worked for four years as interpreter in Japanese courtrooms, subsequently choosing to qualify as a lawyer in that country but minded to never practice there. Among my reasons is their habit of having victims' families testify in court before the verdict, even asking what punishment they would like the court to impose. In fact, most sentences deemed heavy cite "the fact that the victim's family has not forgiven the defendant". It is an outrage - the court in its determination to punish "someone" pushed to punish the person who happens to be accused, the emotion filling the gaps we otherwise call "reasonable doubt". Have families testify if you wish but never before the court has determined the defendant's guilt.
Michael, London UK/ Tokyo JPN
This should be allowed and the judges - as happens in America - should take into account the views of the victim's family. If that leads to longer or tougher sentences then that is a good thing. Further, this should be extended to any crime - why just murder? Even apparent lesser crimes such as burglary, assault or fraud can wreck lives. The victim should have a say here as well - and one that can impact sentences.
John, Watford, UK
The victim's family should not be allowed to address the court in the manner proposed. The whole point of having a criminal justice system is that it provides a fair and impartial trial and punishment on behalf of society as a whole, not on behalf of the victim (or their family).
Joe Thompson, Newcastle-Under-Lyme
Families should have a voice in court. That way, the offender may be given a chance to realise what he has done and perhaps feel more ready to make amends.
Daniel, Kent, UK
Imagine this scenario. One partner in a dysfunctional relationship kills the other one in a fit of desperation after years of bullying and abuse. The family of the dead person can appear in court and defend the behaviour of their relative before death, but the family of the "real" victim - the one who was subjected to years of torment - have no such right. This is a BAD idea, and will result in the severity of sentence being linked not to the severity of the crime, but to the "performance" of the bereaved family.
Yes, definitely and not just for manslaughter and murder. As many others here have said, what about drunk drivers and repetitive thieves?
J. Hodgson, Swindon, UK
This would add nothing to the application of the law. The accused is either guilty or innocent and should be subjected the applicable tariff if found guilty. Understandable emotions from the relatives or victim have no place in court, unless they are directly required to give evidence. Post trial and sentencing, managed confrontation between the guilty party and any relatives or victim is an entirely different issue and may or may not be useful in getting the criminal to confront the consequences of their crimes.
Phil, Brentwood, UK
The undoubted mental turmoil of the victims' relations has no bearing on the severity of a crime and appropriate punishment. This is a dreadful idea indicative of this government pandering to a reactionary public and their fundamental misunderstanding of the effective operation of the judiciary.
Angus Wood, Edinburgh
What is the point of this? People deal with grief in different ways. If the victim's family's statement (or performance) is supposed to affect the sentence then surely this would put even more stress on them at an already difficult time, I can envisage their lawyers coaching them on what to say. If the statement does not affect the sentencing what purpose does it serve in the courtroom aside from providing the media with more outpourings of grief for them to make money out of.
Helen, Oxford, UK
I am not sure I do fully understand this. Is it simply for the families to get something off their chests? That may seem reasonable. But there must be some belief sentencing will be affected. And if that is the case - what about people without families? Will their killers get more lenient sentences because there is no emotive/personal speech made about them to the judge? And therein lies the problem - for this to be workable then it must not take place before sentencing.
E Laing, Glasgow
How many people contributing to this debate have actually had someone in the family murdered? They seem to set great store by our legal system being 'dispassionate', well maybe we need more passion in it, and the accused should see the hurt and damage that they have caused. Wait till they lose a friend or family member and see someone walk out of court with a ludicrous inadequate sentence, then I hope they will have a different view. Our system protects the criminal at the expense of the victims.
Chris, Telford, UK
This is just an attempt by the government to appear to be on the side of the victim, though in reality it will make no difference. The judges will still ignore the victim and give the same old lenient sentence regardless.
Mike, Northampton, UK
I really don't see how this will make any difference to the outcome of any trial. Surely the families of victims will be distraught enough without having to address that to a judge, who let's face it, should be intelligent enough to know that for themselves. The bereaved relatives should be supported rather than paraded on the stand.
Kalen Thomas, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria
This is an absurd idea. It is patronising to the bereaved if they are encouraged to believe, wrongly, that the statements they make will have any influence at all on the judge or the sentence. If their statements will indeed be influential, the position is much worse. It is turning what should be an objective instrument of public policy into some kind of macabre competition; the winners presumably will be those relatives who make the most fuss and the most emotive statements. The idea should be dropped at once.
This is a good idea, it will give grieving relatives at least a chance to speak about their feelings for their loved ones, some sense of 'closure'. And to those who say this is just vengeance on the part of the bereaved, firstly no court will allow an overly emotional statement and secondly, what is the justice system if it is not society's vengeance on those who do wrong?
K K, Croydon
Allowing families to have a say in sentencing will only raise expectations, causing increased disappointment when their views are perceived to be ignored. The best example of this was the sad case of Jamie Bulger's parents, whose suffering was made worse by the fact that they perceived the participation that they had in sentencing was ignored.
My sister was killed by a driver who was over the alcohol limit in Arizona. My mother was consulted about the kind of punishment: the family views on a longer prison sentence or more community service were sought. She had to phone me and my sisters and discuss it with us, including considerations that a longer sentence would be served in a federal prison, harder for the killer's family to visit and more likely to contain hardened criminals where this lad would be likely to be a target for bullying. All this was explained to my mother by her lawyer. There was this responsibility for such further events for this man who had already caused so much grief by killing my beloved baby sister.
Did I need to start thinking about him and his life and feeling I had had a share in deciding it? It was a burden, and a burden for my mother, who was already having to fly out several times for the trial, arrange to deal with my sister's stuff in and to cope emotionally. In addition, the idea that if the guy had happened to kill the daughter of a more vindictive person that would affect his sentencing - when the crime was exactly the same - seems arbitrary. I think this needs to be extremely carefully considered.
The families of all victims of violence deserve to be heard, in particular, families of murder and manslaughter. All too often they are forgotten about and left to suffer the pain and agony of losing a loved one alone. Constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman proposals will make a positive contribution to the relatives, though, why we have to wait on a monitoring assessment isn't easily explained, the proposals are good enough to stand up to any test, they should be implemented immediately.
Eddie Espie, Cookstown
No, they should not. The families were not related to the crime so why should they have an outcome on the sentence? By this logic killing someone with no family is not as bad as killing someone with family. The sentencing should be carried out solely based on the crime itself and the parties directly involved.
Neil, Malvern, UK
Families should have a voice in court. In the end they are the true victims of such heinous crimes who always suffer. The question should really be; Are sentences long enough for manslaughter and murderers found guilty in court? I imagine those poor families affected just want convicted murderers and the like sent down for much, much longer sentences. It's an insult to have murderers let out on so-called 'good behaviour' long before their sentence was due to finish. A life sentence in other words should mean just that! This is a long standing problem in our legal system that no one seems prepared to address properly particularly this government.
Peter Alsop, Calne, Wiltshire, UK
Beyond a doubt they should be allowed to speak because they too are the victims not just the murdered person. The victims' families - and that should include significant others - overwhelmingly want justice not revenge. Few judges, especially with our very unrepresentative judiciary, will have lost anyone close to them by murder and it should give them a very necessary insight into the suffering caused.
Hilary Traveller, Guildford, UK
This sounds at first like a good idea. But the stress on bereaved relatives or partners speaking in court, presumably in front of a violent murderer will be too great. And how many people will risk retaliation from the criminal's friends by standing up and asking the judge to give the criminal a long sentence? Courts are supposed to act on behalf of the public, including victims and their families. This proposal will do nothing to make judges and politicians actually stand up for the public and apply meaningful sentences to violent and amoral criminals. In fact, it will just reinforce the idea that victims and criminals are morally equivalent, and murders and beatings are just to be treated the same as some civil dispute over, say, some faulty goods.
I really don't think this is a good idea. Families of the victims, it can be reasonably assumed, will be very upset. I cannot see how allowing them to express there grief will assist the court in its work. I can see that an outlet for their grief and anger could assist the bereaved in dealing with their loss but think the court is not the place for this. It could be argued that all victims of crime need to express how their loss has affected them. I don't think this proposal has been properly considered and I would be surprised if the judiciary will be happy with it.
Richard Atkins, Wortham, UK
What about the voices of those who've lost loved ones to drunk or dangerous drivers? The effect on these families is much the same but judges often give pathetically weak sentences for such crimes. The government needs to look at a fundamental review of sentencing instead of token gestures.
Griff, Cardiff, Wales
It's plain wrong. A sentence, rightly, is determined by the severity of the offence. The ability of the family of the victims to express their grief should have absolutely no bearing on the sentence handed down. What is the point of this proposal? Are they suggesting that a murderer whose victim has no family should be treated more lightly because there is no one to express the devastation of relatives? British courts are courts of law, not emotion.
David Patrick, Reading, UK
Relatives are made to feel their loved ones life is being trivialised, I think you should be able to talk of your grief and tell of the impact on your life. No it will not change anything but recognition that the life taken is important. I don't think this will affect the sentence, no sentence can ever be enough, the families are suffering a life sentence forever. I know as my daughter was killed December 04 as a passenger, the driver is being prosecuted and I have written a statement about my daughter and how her death has affected us. It in no way speaks of the driver or of the actual event it is purely about the kind of person she was and why shouldn't we be able to voice our feelings she is not just a case number she is a person, just think if it happened to you, you would want to shout it from the rooftops.
Shirley Ling, Chingford, London
Of course this should be introduced. All crimes have a detrimental affect on people's lives to a differing degree. Surely allowing people to know the real extent of their crimes will help accurate sentencing and judgements, as well as shaming the actual criminals further.
John Williams, Sheffield, UK
My concern with this proposal is that it suggests that the sentence should be influenced by the degree of distress that appears to have been caused to the bereaved. This should have no bearing on the sentence at all. A killing is a killing. The sentence should reflect that alone. I sympathise greatly with the bereaved but I don't think the court is the correct place for them to vent their feelings.
Karen, Southampton, England
It is blindingly obvious that murder victims' families will be distraught. Telling the court of their distress will make no difference. Courts dispassionately examine the facts of a case before deciding on guilt, after which the judge imposes sentence. Allowing families to say how upset the murderer made them is the first step to mob rule.
Rupert Marshall, Sweden
What a great idea, now maybe the judges who are supposed to be on the side of the victim might give punishments fitting the crime and not the lenient sentences we all see every day. Make the judges see the hurt and pain that they didn't see before.
Peter Berry, Portsmouth England
This is a bad idea. Murder is murder, no matter who is your victim. Under this plan, it seems that a criminal may be treated more harshly if he killed a much-loved granny and mother (say) than if he killed a drug addict or a prostitute with no family to grieve for them. We are all people, and we all deserve to be protected from these crimes equally, regardless of how big the hole in people's hearts we leave behind.
I don't see the point in murder trials. It can't affect the sentence as the judge can only give a life sentence in murder cases. Where it would be useful is in cases of death by dangerous driving. Two many drunk drivers get laughable sentences after killing or seriously injuring innocent people.
Under no circumstances should victims' families have a voice in such matters; justice and revenge are not the same thing. Yes, if a member of my family was murdered I'd probably want to see the murderer suffer, but then I'd hardly be thinking with a rational mind. Of course murderers need to be dealt with effectively, but how effectively shouldn't depend on the quality of the display their victims family can put on in court.
Tim, Dorset, UK
As a lawyer I have a lot of sympathy with victims' families who would like to ensure that the court hears about the character of the relation who has been killed. The court process turns the victim into no more than a piece of evidence and this is clearly distressing for many families. But beyond giving the families some comfort and another chance to recall how wonderful their relative was, I cannot see what relevance the character of the victim has in sentencing considerations. Judges and courts will quickly become used to hearing the same old tired platitudes about how young people were bright and bubbly and had great potential, how parents were loving and kind and how old people had made enormous contributions in the course of their lives and will not take these sentimental outpourings into account. The murder of a sinner is no less grave a crime than the murder of a saint. The emotional and psychological needs of the victims' families should be satisfied in another forum, rather than at great expense to the public purse by further clogging up the courts by drawing out cases for even longer.
Of course, we need to see how the victim's families have been, are being and will be effected by the loss of their love one. The punishment should always fit the crime and we can only begin to understand the extent of the harm caused if we allow the victims family to explain how the murder or manslaughter has, is and will effect them.
I was horrified to hear that bereaved family members already have input into the Court's deliberations. The feelings of victims can have no place in the dispensing of justice. If they do it becomes vengeance.
No, the bereaved should take no part in court proceedings other than to give evidence. An emotional outburst, demanding hideous vengeance, has no part in the legal process. Sentencing already takes the consequences of crime into account. Allowing the bereaved a voice will simply provide copy for the more scurrilous newspapers.
Will this also apply to the victims of road "accidents"? Too often careless motorists who kill and maim get off with a few points or a few months' ban. Maybe if victims were given a voice we would see more lifetime bans and custodial sentences.
Noam Bleicher, Oxford