The Victims’ Rights Directive  can make a significant difference to victims’ lives if it is fully and properly implemented. Victim Support Europe Executive Director Levent Altan: “I see it as a promising beginning, the next phase in European victims’ rights.”

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Focusing on victims is a relatively recent phenomenon. “Awareness of victims and victim assistance programmes really started to develop in the 1970s in America and in other countries such as innorthwest Europe”, states Levent Altan, Executive Director of Victim Support Europe. He points out that as criminal justice systems developed, the main focus was to ensure that suspects would have an effective right to a fair trial. Important as that is, the result was that the victim was somehow forgotten. Around forty years ago people began to realise that the criminal justice system functions less if it doesn’t meet the needs of victims. People also began to focus on how victims were supported outside of the criminal justice system whilst the women’s movement drove developments on violence against women. This sparked off, among other things, the formation of victim support organisations.

 

Framework Decision

Six years ago Levent Altan was a British civil servant seconded as national expert to the European Commission. “My task was to evaluate the functioning of the Framework Decision on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings, that was adopted in 2001. The conclusion was that it did not function as it should and had been poorly implemented by EU Member States. I was then closely involved in drafting and negotiating the Victims’ Rights Directive. That background happily gave me the opportunity to become executive director of Victim Support Europe, something I jumped at as working in the field is especially inspiring and rewarding. ”

React

Victim support can greatly reduce the impact of crime and other harm to victims, says Levent Altan. “Every victim reacts differently to a crime. Some will be relatively unaffected or recover quickly.. For others, the effects can be devasting and they can be experienced immediately or after some time. People can experience minor anxiety through to post traumatic stress disorder and have symptoms like flashbacks, stomach pain and impaired daily functioning. They many be unable to work, turn to alcohol or drugs or even attempt suicide. Victim support organisations provide a range of services to help victims. In the first place there is emotional support and counseling. Being able to talk to somebody about what happened to you can really benefit victims. Advice and support to understand and cope with reactions to the crime can be a great help.”

Practical assistance

Many support organisations also provide practical assistance to victims. “That can be an important way of helping people cope and feel safer. Practical assistance can involve many things and can real make a huge difference. It can involve dealing with administrative issues like filling in forms or it can involve repairing a broken door for instance. Or, if the crime happened in another country than where victims live, they are not able to do so because they don’t speak the language. I remember a support worker telling me of a case where a lady had been raped in her bed but couldn’t afford to buy a new mattress. Understanding how traumatising this was for the lady, the organisation bought a new bed for her. This flexible approach to supporting victims is fundamental to victim support delivered by NGOs”

Secondary victimisation

Reducing what is called secondary victimisation is an important task both for victim support organisations as well as others coming into contact with victims. “It’s essential that our organisations and systems are set up to minimise the harm we cause to victims, for example by reducing the number of times they have to say what happened. Being a witness in the trial can be really hard for victims. Victim support organisations can assist and support victims during a trial. For many people, the Courts are very intimidating and they never have been to one before. The thought of appearing and recounting what happening can be highly stressful. In a number of countries such as Sweden, for example, orientation visits to the court building are possible to explain what is going to happen and to help reassure victims and witnesses. These are just some of the ways that victim support organisations help to meet the needs of victims and help them recover. And the reality is that by getting it right for victims and supporting them fully, there is an economic advantage as well: victims are less likely to have long term health problems, more likely to get back to work sooner, and trials are more likely to have a successful outcome, thus reducing wasted trial costs.”

Basic needs

Levent Altan firmly believes that Victims’ Rights Directive can make a real difference to victims’ lives. “It was designed to meet the five basic needs of victims. In the first place victims must be treated with respect and dignity. So, for example, police officers must be trained to interview victims in an understanding way. They shouldn’t ask a rape victim questions that sound like they blame the victim for the rape because they wore a short skirt. In the second place the Directive must ensure that victims are protected from further harm. Protection from intimidation in the case of domestic violence, for example. But also from secondary victimisation. Victims should not be interviewed five different times about what happened, first by a police man or woman, then by a police detective, then the prosecutor, the defense lawyer and finally by a psychiatrist. In these modern times it is absolutely unnecessary to make the victim relive the event time and again.”

Support

The third need of victims that the Directive addresses is support. “The Directive requires that a wide range of support is made available covering for example information, advice, emotional,  practical and legal support.. The Directive also states that this support should be both confidential and free of charge and should cover both general support and specialised services. Then there is the issue of access to justice. The victim must have the opportunity to be heard. This takes into account the differening justice systems in Europe, with common law countries like the UK, not providing victims with a formal role in trials, whilst in civil law systems, such as in France, victims have full rights as a party to the proceedings and the trial. As such they may request questions to be asked to the defendant or they can ask questions themselves. Important in this respect is also that victims should, under certain conditions, have a right to interpretation and translation if the crime took place in another country then where they live or if the victims don’t speak the language in which the trial is held.”

Restorative justice

Last but not least there is the issue of compensation and restorative justice. “New rules on financial compensation were considered too big an issue to be dealt with in this Directive. The European Commission, however, has promised to address this separately in the near future, as well as the matter of legal aid. The Directive does, however, recognise, the increasing role of restorative justice and the importance of ensuring safeguards so that victims can genuinely benefit from the process rather than suffering further harm. This means that restorative justice services should follow certain basic standards when bringing victim and offender together so that both sides fully benefit.”

A tailored approach

There is another aspect concerning the Victims’ Rights Directive that Levent Altan thinks is important. “The Directive establishes an important principle that victims must be treated as individuals and have services tailored to their needs. Many countries have focused on specific groups of victims in their support and justice systems, such as victims of domestic violence, human trafficking or child sexual abuse, whilst broadly ignoring the many other victims. This may mean there is no support for those victims or even where there are some services they are not designed well for the individual, effectively reducing acces to the service. The Directive very clearly states that every victim has the right to an individual assessment to determine what protection measures they need in criminal proceedings. This was established because in many countries those measures were only available to certain groups of victims.  Now every victim has the right to those protection measures based on an assessment of their personal circumstances, not just whether they are a victim of a certain crime. As of 16 November, all Member States should have these measures in place. They must have nationwide victim support organisations that are accessible to all victims. Unfortunately, at this moment eight Member States still have not realised that.”

Into force

One month ago the Victims’ Rights Directive came into force. “That is a real step forward”, Levent Altan says. “The Directive sets minimum standards that all twenty-seven Member States (Denmark opted out) must meet. It’s important to recognise that a lot countries are making big efforts to meet these standards. However, many countries have not reached all of the standards. Some are only just starting to work on it, three years after the Directive was adopted. Others seem to just beimplementing the legislation in paper alone, whilst failing to put mechanisms in place to turn those laws into reality,  such as effectively training police officers, prosecutors, judges and others within the criminal justice system. The Commission will closely monitor implementation of this Directive. They must do so, to be able to follow through with infringement procedures where Member States haven’t implemented the Directive. This would mean that States would face heavy fines if they did not change their laws. The Commission will not only assess if laws are in place, but also if victims’ rights are accessible in practice. Victim Support Europe will follow this process very closely. We plan to bring out our own report on the implementation of the Directive as well. And of course we have programmes to help Member States that are struggling, as I’m sure the CEP is exchanging best practices and facilitating training between member organisations.”

Economic crisis

Recently some countries have argued they can’t meet the deadline because of the economic crisis. A bad excuse, says Levent Altan. “Evidence shows that if you get this right, it is on the whole much cheaper to effectively implement victims’ rights than to do nothing. Of course, your training budget for the police might be higher. But there will be lower health care costs, industry will benefit from lower sick absences and the justice system will reduce wasted costs from failed cases.. Costs and benefits must be looked at in the round and in the longer term. But the economic benefits is not the determining factor for victims rights. Victims’ rights are human rights: governments have a responsability to act, and they have committed to act. Compare it to environmental legislation. If you just considered the costs to industry of environmental legislation, you would never act. Rather, one has to look at the longer term and at all costs involved. This is the case for  victims’ rights just as in environmental protection. In all parts of Europe, North, South, West and East, there are countries that have successfully implemented legislation concerning victims’ rights that is fully accessible to victims. There really is no excuse for not fully implementing the Directive in the shortest possible term.”

Five years

Where will we be in five years time? Levent Altan takes some time to consider this question before answering it. “I certainly think change must be seen throughout the whole of Europe by then. In countries that are now really struggling or just starting to deal with this issue things must have changed. In other parts of Europe, with more tradition in victim support, we will also see changes. Take countries like the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. They have been working on this issue for more than thirty years. Still they are finding lots of things to do while implementing the Directive. As in all areas of society, this is an evolving field, where we should continuously work to improve how we work. Certainly, this Directive is not the end. I see it as a promising beginning, the next phase in European victims rights. The coming years we will see what works and what doesn’t and whether the Directive needs to be amended. It is an exciting process, in which Victim Support Europe will continue to advocate for victims and help implement change.”

 


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