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Victims of Crime Initiatives

Victims' CommissionThe Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern TD, yesterday launched two new websites aimed at making relevant information readily accessible to victims of crime. The websites are those of the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime and the Victims of Crime Office.

The Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime was established in 2005 and is an independent body, operating under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (DJELR).  It has a wide range of functions, including the development of strategies to support victims of crime, providing financial assistance to voluntary bodies that support victims of crime, promoting awareness of the services available to victims , and carrying out research to support its general mission. Along with this, the Commission seeks to co-operate in particular with Cosc (the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence) and the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (within the DJELR). The current Chairperson of the Commission is Ray McAndrew, former Assistant Commissioner of the Gardaí, and the other members include Nora Owen, former Minster for Justice and Seán Lowry, former Head of the Probation and Welfare Service.

The Victims of Crime Office, which works closely with the Commission, was established as an executive office of the DJELR in September 2008. Its main aim is to improve the continuity and quality of services to victims of crime by both state agencies and NGOs. The Director of the Victims of Crime Office is an ex-officio member of the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime and the Office provides the secretariat to the Commission.

The DJELR also has further plans for change in the area of victims’ rights. Some of these plans are included in the Criminal Procedure Bill 2009, e.g.  clarification of the status of next-of-kin victim impact statements in homicide cases . The Bill also proposes changes to the rule on double jeopardy in certain situations, e.g. where there is evidence that previous acquittals occurred in circumstances of interference with the criminal justice process. The Minister for Justice clarified yesterday that any such changes to the double jeopardy rule would not operate retrospectively.

While much of the Criminal Procedure Bill 2009 is being touted by the Minister for Justice as victim-oriented, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has previously suggested that many of the measures contained therein “chip away at fair trial rights”. In relation to the proposed changes to the  double jeopardy rule Mark Kelly, Director of the ICCL, noted that these “will do little or nothing to improve the position of victims or their families”. In May of this year, the ICCL proposed an alternative approach to the protection of victims’ rights entitled “A Better Deal: The Human Rights of Victims in the Criminal Justice System“. This detailed policy document emphasises the need for Ireland to comply with the European Framework Decision on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings, which was agreed in 2001. This Framework Decision requires Member States to align their legislation on criminal proceedings to guarantee a number of things to victims including amongst other things: the right to be heard in proceedings and the right to furnish evidence; access to information relevant to their interests from the outset of proceedings; and access to any necessary interpreting or communicating facilities.

The launch of the new websites of the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime and the Victims of Crime Office yesterday is more than welcome, however, it is clear that there is a lot more work to be done in guaranteeing rights to victims. There is also likely to be plenty more controversy and conversation in the future at both a domestic and an EU level about how best to protect victims’ interests within the criminal process while still ensuring the fairness of trials and respect for suspect rights.

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