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Legal voices ignored on victims’ say in court

3 March 2006

A pilot scheme allowing the relatives of murder victims to speak in court about how the crime affected their family is to go ahead, despite strong opposition from the legal profession.

The government announced that from April ‘victims’ advocates’ will be allowed to make a pre-sentencing statement in five courts across England and Wales, following “firm support” for the proposals in the consultation paper ‘Hearing the Relatives of Murder and Manslaughter Victims’. However, a consultation responses paper showed that, although victim organisations and family members backed the pilot, the judiciary and legal organisations – such as the Bar Council and Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and Legal Aid Practitioners Group – strongly opposed it.

Asked whether they agreed with the pilot, all five respondent judicial and legal organisations said they did not, with the response document noting: “The judiciary and legal profession expressed concerns about whether introducing an oral statement would be an effective and appropriate way to improve the experience of victims.” The judiciary said it did not even agree with the basic aims of the pilot, while all legal respondents said although they supported ‘helping victims’, they opposed oral statements and victims’ advocates.

The response document again noted that a “substantial minority” disagreed with the proposals, with “only two responses from 14 from the judiciary and legal profession supporting the proposal for an oral statement”.

The Bar Council also expressed concern that a statement might falsely raise relatives’ expectations that their words could have an impact on the sentence. The Bar said that if, following a statement, ” the victim is then dissatisfied with the sentence, we believe that the position will be worse not better. The victim will be distressed and feel ignored”.

Despite these objections, the pilots will proceed in April for one year in the Old Bailey and Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Winchester Crown Courts.

Announcing the pilots, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, said: “This a ground-breaking way of supporting victims and their families. I am grateful to all those who looked closely at the victims’ advocates consultation and responded with comments, all of which inform development of victims’ advocates to improve the experience of the criminal justice system for bereaved relatives in murder and manslaughter cases.”

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