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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 07:42 GMT 08:42 UK
Should victims have a voice in court?

By Anna Browning
BBC News

Families of murder victims in England and Wales could be allowed to tell courts of their grief, under government plans. The proposals have already provoked strong emotions on both sides of the debate.

Giselle Pakeerah
Giselle Pakeerah says she felt 'muted' by the court system

Giselle Pakeraah's 14-year-old son Stefan was murdered 18 months ago.

She found not being able to speak at the trial of his killer added to her trauma.

"During that time I felt like a trapped, tortured animal muted by the system because I couldn't say anything. I couldn't protest," she said.

Under the new plans, bereaved families would be able to address the court before sentencing - either in person or through a victim's advocate.

Ministers from the Department for Constitutional Affairs say it will help families like Ms Pakeraah and it could help to fight crime.

But the charity Victim Support has reservations. The group said, as a general rule, victims should not have to think about the sentencing process.

"They should be able to express to the world how the crime has affected them. The problem is linking that to the sentencing process," a spokesman said.

They should be able to express to the world how the crime has affected them - the problem is linking that to the sentencing process
Victim Support

"We have got a legal system whereby the state says it is the state's job to assume responsibility for punishment."

If victims became more involved, there would be a danger they would feel guilty later if they felt the punishment had been too harsh, he warned.

"Whatever is proposed, you have to be careful to ensure that victims have a really clear picture on how their views are going to be taken by the court."

'Can of worms'

Julian Young, solicitor advocate for the Westminster Law Partnership, said the proposals were a waste of public money.

Stefan Pakeerah
Stefan was repeatedly battered and stabbed by his older friend
He said the currently-used victim impact statement - a written statement from relatives taken by police and presented to the judge before sentencing - was just as effective.

"Victims getting involved in sentencing is opening a can of worms. Many victims will look for revenge - it's quite natural," he said.

A government spokesman said it was the beginning of a consultation period, and welcomed views from across the spectrum.

"We do not expect everyone to agree with the government - that wouldn't be right."

He also said the proposals were not meant to place victims at the heart of the sentencing process.

"We are not in any way interfering with sentencing. What sentences judges pass on the back of the [victim] statements is a matter for them - I'm sure they consider a great many things before passing sentence."

Refuting the defence

Rose Dixon, of the charity Support after Murder and Manslaughter (Samm), described the plans as "excellent", saying she had been asking for such a change for a long time.

I don't think it's about getting harsher sentences
Rose Dixon
Support after Murder and Manslaughter

"One of the reasons why it would be helpful to the family is that the defence team goes out of their way to try and suggest that the victim almost asked to be murdered," she said.

"The family will be able to refute what has been said in court by the defence team. A lot of our families would like the opportunity to stand up in court and say 'that's not true'."

She added: "I don't think it's about getting harsher sentences - what families tell us is they want justice."




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