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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 June 2006, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Victims' families 'must have say'
Lord Falconer
Lord Falconer championed the Victim's Advocate scheme

The families of murder or manslaughter victims must have more of a voice in court, the lord chancellor has said.

Lord Falconer told the North of England Victims' Association those who lost loved ones to crime were in effect handed life sentences.

He said a pilot scheme to let relatives make court statements before killers are sentenced must show "just" results.

But he rejected calls from victims' families that murderers should spend a minimum 25 years in jail.

Lord Falconer said it was right that the law - as explained in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act - distinguished between severities of murder.

"The criminal justice system has got to try and draw these distinctions irrespective of how awful it sounds to an individual who has suffered a loss," he said.

"I can't offer you what you want in relation to life means life, which I know is incredibly disappointing."

Project trial

Lord Falconer said the fact the families of those killed could never see their loved ones again meant they were in effect handed a life sentence.

He told the conference in South Shields, Tyneside, this was often in sharp contrast to the experience of the convicted defendant.

We feel that because the family, who represent the victim, have not had a voice, that we should then have the voice
Wendy Robinson
Victims' Voice

"If the criminal justice system feels like a crime being committed again to you then it's completely failing," he said.

He said victims and their families should have a voice in court and be better informed about the court process.

The Victim's Advocate scheme allows relatives of victims the chance to address the court - before sentencing - about the impact of the death.

It was launched in April and will be tested for a year in London's Old Bailey and crown courts in Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Winchester.

David Hines, chairman of the North of England Victims' Association, said advocates were a "wonderful" idea.

"They're something that is necessary for the victim to be part of the criminal justice system. It's empowerment - we need to be part of the system."

Family voice

Wendy Robinson, of campaign group Victims' Voice, whose own daughter was murdered, also said it was time victims' families were heard.

Tony Blair in Bristol

"With the offender, if he's found guilty or she is found guilty, they have mitigating circumstances that they try to reduce the sentence with," she told BBC News.

In court, families had to "often listen to things that they really feel is not true and is defamation of someone who has died", she added.

Liberal Democrat constitutional affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said giving victims more of a voice was a good idea but stressed there "must be no end to judicial independence".

BBC correspondent Mark Sanders said the Victim's Advocate scheme was the sort of initiative that chimed with Mr Blair's desire to correct the criminal justice system which he believed was weighted in favour of the perpetrator not the victim.

Lord Falconer's speech followed Tony Blair's warning of a growing gap between the justice system and public expectations.

Addressing victims of crime in inner city Bristol, the prime minister said the rights of suspects must not "outweigh" those of the "law-abiding majority".

Hear a murder victim's father who has fought for change

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