Friday, August 10, 2007

Victims of crime in Scotland to be given a say before sentencing

The not so latest proposals on giving victims of serious crime a chance to make a statement in court make it to media attention today as the Scottish Executive comes out with a new spin policy package to reform parts of the criminal justice system.

This announcement follows a two year pilot scheme in some Scottish courts, and research undertaken by the Scottish Executive, all reported today in the Scotsman.

The questions are, will Sheriffs & Judges listen ? or are they set in their ways ... and will such statements from victims prejudice the rights of the accused, found guilty ?

Victims to be given their say before their attackers are sentenced


VICTIMS of serious crime are to be given a much bigger voice in the justice system, The Scotsman has learned.

They will get the opportunity to provide a statement in court before their attacker is sentenced, under plans revealed by Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary.

He said that, for too long, victims had been treated as "baggage" by the system, but the statement would give them the chance to say how the crime had impacted on their lives, whether emotionally, physically or financially. In murder cases, the family of the victim would have the right to provide a statement.

In all instances, the statement would have to be taken into account by the sheriff or the judge, and it could result in a longer sentence.

A notification scheme, requiring prosecutors to tell victims when their attackers will be released from jail, will also be extended.

Mr MacAskill acknowledged steps had already been taken to improve the position of victims - and he pledged to ensure their rights would no longer be neglected by prosecutors and the courts.

"The past Executive flagged up the needs of victims and the person who perhaps drove it most was the current Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, who realised that, as a community and as a legal entity, Scotland had forgotten the rights of victims. Nobody did it deliberately, but victims were seen as baggage, almost a nuisance. They were seen as an unnecessary encumbrance.

"We have to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. We have to realise they are the ones who have suffered, that they are not an encumbrance but that they have rights," he said.

The move follows a two-year pilot scheme at courts in Edinburgh, Ayr and Kilmarnock. An evaluation found that six out of ten families of victims of the most serious crimes, such as murder and death by dangerous driving, wanted to provide a pre-sentence statement.

However, the Executive-commissioned research, which was published in March, raised concerns that victim statements, which are already allowed south of the Border, risked prejudicing the accused and could falsely raise the expectations of victims. Some victims also decided not to give statements for fear of reprisals.

Some of those concerns were echoed by experts last night.

Dr Susan McVie, a criminologist at Edinburgh University, said: "I think in cases where victims don't get the chance to describe the impact the crime has had on them, or cases where the victim is no longer around to speak out, this can be a very positive thing.

"In theory, it's a good idea, but many victims don't bother to take it up."

She went on: "Does it mean offences are treated differently in cases where a victim statement is read, compared to when cases are not read out? Research tends to focus on the effect on victims, but this is something that I think we need to look at."

However, most victims who signed up to the pilot scheme thought it was worthwhile, which is why Mr MacAskill plans to extend the scheme to all cases heard before a judge in the High Court or a sheriff and jury.

"This will give victims of serious crimes such as murder, rape or serious assault the right to make a statement telling the court about the emotional, financial and medical impact a crime has had on them, after conviction but before sentencing," he said. "It's important, however, to be clear - the statements would be just one factor that judges will take into account when passing sentence."

The Executive already commits £4million a year to Victim Support Scotland, which helped to operate the pilot schemes between November 2003 and November 2005.

Mr MacAskill acknowledged that rolling out the pilots will require extra funding, which is why the project will not officially be given the green light until after the government's forthcoming spending review.

David McKenna, the chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said: "The final stages of a court case, particularly in cases such as rape and serious violence, are often the most distressing to victims of crime.

"At present, the defence can say anything they like because nobody can say 'that's not true'. The family will sit in court and hear lies and see nobody bothering to correct them because it doesn't affect the prosecution. They will hear someone being sentenced to five or six years and think that, if the court had been told that wasn't true, he would have got seven or eight years."

Under the pilot schemes, prosecutors told the victim or their family they were entitled to give a pre-sentence statement. They were then given a form and offered the help of Victim Support to fill it in. The form took the victim through the different areas where the crime might have impacted on them.

"Theoretically, there's nothing to stop the victim writing their statement on the back of an envelope," Mr McKenna said.

Bill Aitken, MSP, the justice spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said:

"I think these ideas have considerable merit and are worthy of support."
'You feel ignored - just like a number'

THE justice secretary's announcement has come too late for Frank Dewar and his wife, Allison.

Their 16-year-old daughter Karen was killed by Colyn Evans who attacked her with a knife, pushed her body into a bin and set it on fire.

It is more than two years since Evans was jailed for life for the murder that shocked a nation, but Mr Dewar still cannot understand why he and the rest of his family were "ignored" by the authorities as justice took its course.

Mr Dewar last night said he would have welcomed the opportunity to provide a pre-sentence statement to court, making clear to the world the damage the crime caused, not only to his family but to the community of Tayport in Fife, where the murder took place and where they continue to live.

He said: "The only statement we were allowed was one pre-prepared by a police officer that was read to the media.

"There was nothing. We were just put in a waiting room and told to stay there. Then we were led to court. After that, we were basically ignored all day."

Mr Dewar, 47, said he welcomed moves by the Scottish government to give victims and their families a bigger voice in the system.

He added: "We really would have liked to have the chance to express our feelings, just to put our point of view across to the judge and everyone else.

"There was a lot of anger. It had obviously affected the whole family, but it also affected the community of Tayport.

"At the moment, victims and their families feel awfully ignored. It's all too official. You feel just like a number."

As Evans was sentenced, in June 2005, Karen's friends and family shouted abuse at him in the courtroom.

One called out "animal" and shouted: "I hope you rot in hell, Evans."

The Dewar family had blamed social workers for "dumping" Evans in their village.

Fife Council placed Evans in a house in Tayport after he was released from a special needs school.

He had committed six sexual offences between the ages of ten and 16, five of which related to shameless and indecent exposure.
Notification scheme to be extended

THE number of victims of violent crime who can be warned when their attacker is released from prison is set to double.

At the moment, only victims in cases where the perpetrator is sentenced to four or more years in prison can sign up to the victim notification scheme.

That allows victims to be notified of the criminal's date of release, if the offender dies before release, if the offender is transferred outside Scotland, if the prisoner has escaped or absconded from custody, and the first time the offender becomes eligible for temporary release.

Victim Support Scotland (VSS) has been pressing the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, to drop the minimum tariff for the scheme to kick in from four years to one year.

Mr MacAskill has agreed in principle to lowering the minimum sentence and will now press his colleagues to sanction the extra funding required during a spending review later in the year.

Mr MacAskill said: "I believe that provision of accurate and timely information to victims is also important. That is why I am keen to find ways of expanding the victim notification scheme following a recent evaluation of its use for victims of serious crimes, I hope to at least double the number of victims covered by the scheme."

The scheme currently covers about 600 offenders a year and its expansion was last night welcomed by David McKenna, the chief executive of VSS. "It might not sound very exciting but the victim notification scheme really is very, very important for some people," he said.

"It can come as a really big shock for the victim of an assault to suddenly bump into their attacker in the street three and a half years after the case.

"We have asked for the scheme to be extended for cases where the offender is sentenced for 12 months or more."

Some academics have voiced concern that the scheme could be exploited by people who wished to carry out reprisal attacks, but Mr McKenna dismissed the suggestion.

"It is something of a myth that someone will be waiting at the prison gates with a baseball bat.

"People within the system say this never happens."
Judge left in tears at mother's devastation

ELIZABETH Davidson moved a judge to tears when she read out in court a witness impact statement describing her devastation after her daughter, Margaret, was killed in a car crash with a teenage motorist.

The 26-year-old junior doctor was driving to her home in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, in May 2006 when she was hit by Nolan Haworth, 19, overtaking on the brow of a hill while driving at up to 80mph in a 50mph zone. He was racing to court in a borrowed car with no licence to answer a charge of affray.

Dr Davidson had graduated from Oxford University in 2005 and was engaged to be married.

Mrs Davidson, from Hamilton, Lanarkshire, had her statement read out to judge Julian Hall at Oxford Crown Court last September.

It said: "Margaret was beautiful, fiercely intelligent and a caring, thoughtful girl who loved fun, good food and wine, and the company of family and friends.

"How do I feel knowing I will never see her smile again? How do I feel knowing I will never see her arrive off the train, toss down her bag and wrap her arms around me and hear her say, 'how's my wee mum?'

"Can you imagine the distress of having to choose the dress she will wear in her coffin instead of the one she will wear on her wedding day?

"I can't begin to tell you the sorrow of telling my son by phone that his dear sister was dead. All that talent, all that hard work, wiped out in an instant.

"After years of studying and hard work on her part and financial struggles on ours, Dr Margaret E Davidson BM BCHMA graduated from Oxford University.

On her way up to receive her degree, she turned to me and smiled a smile of sheer joy, love and gratitude.

"Less than a year later, I collected a very tasteful carrier bag containing a cardboard box labelled 'the remains of the late Dr Margaret E Davidson'.

"I don't know if these words have conveyed my sense of loss. Perhaps I should have saved your time and said I loved Margaret from her first breath, and I will love, mourn and miss her until my last."

Haworth was sentenced to four years in jail.

No comments: