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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
Should victims' voices be heard?
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Officer unlocking prison gate
Victim groups want in a say on whether offenders are freed

Home Secretary John Reid's announcement that victims of crime will be offered a say in the release of offenders from prison follows a series of steps by the government to define a role for the victim in the criminal justice process.

Traditionally, the victim has been at the margins of the adversarial system, a source of testimony in court but subordinate to the role of police, lawyers and judges in determining the outcome of a criminal case.

In April 2006, a new Code of Practice for victims of crime came into force.

It prescribed the minimum services victims can expect to receive from a range of statutory organisations, including the Parole Board.

It does not go as far as giving victims a say in prisoner release decisions and many would strongly oppose that.

I don't think that anyone sitting on a panel should have a particular partisan viewpoint
Roger Smith, Justice

Roger Smith, director of the legal group, Justice, is one.

"Parole decisions are about assessment of risk. They should not be susceptible to subjective factors or emotion.

"I have no problem with victims of crime being represented on the board but I don't think that anyone sitting on a panel should have a particular partisan viewpoint."

There are more than 150 members of the Parole Board, among them judges, psychiatrists, psychologists, representatives of the probation service and criminologists.

More than 60 are appointed as independent members, but no-one is appointed simply because they have been a victim of crime.

However, the chairman of the Parole Board, Sir Duncan Nichol, has implied that such experience might be considered valuable in the selection of new members.

In the UK, even the issue of victims advocates, currently being piloted at five courts in murder and manslaughter trials, is controversial

He said: "We have embarked on a fresh recruitment round and we will be looking at people who have been victims of crime."

At the moment, each parole panel routinely has before it a victim impact statement when considering a possible release and there is regular contact between the Board and Victim Support.

In non adversarial justice systems, such as the French, the victim has a statutory right to legal representation in court as a "partie civile".

In the UK, even the issue of victims advocates, currently being piloted at five courts in murder and manslaughter trials, is controversial.

When the government issued a consultation paper last year proposing such a move, it was opposed by the majority of lawyers and judges who responded.

Victims groups were overwhelmingly in favour.

Many criminal justice professionals will undoubtedly view steps to extend the role of the victim into the parole process as a further example of government populism and grandstanding in the face of deep concern about the performance of the penal system.


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