New rights for victims of crime in Europe - Introduction
We may have free movement within Europe, but we are denied equal access to justice
Professor of Law at Tilburg University in the Netherlands
Up to now the treatment of crime victims across Europe has been a lottery. In some Member States victims' issues rank high on the political agenda and, in recent years, great improvements have been made to the way in which victims and witnesses are treated. Yet in others there has been little or no progress and this, when combined with the absence of a national victims' agency to champion victims' rights, has meant that victims' interests have remained largely ignored.
This situation is compounded for over eight million European tourists who become victims of crime each year (1) during their travels. Anyone can become a victim of crime but holiday-makers are particularly vulnerable. Typical tourist behaviours such as carrying cameras, gazing at sights or just unfamiliarity with the area, are all easily spotted. Language barriers, cultural and religious differences and the complexities of a different country's legal system may dissuade many people from reporting a crime to the local police. In some countries it is impossible for foreign nationals to receive compensation, even where the crime is reported. In other instances, action may be dropped before there is even a trial if the victim returns home after reporting the crime. Many victims find that the burden of coping with a different criminal justice system is just too much and feel that their only option is to let the whole matter drop, leaving their offender to escape justice and free to re-offend.
The Framework Decision
Action is now being taken to improve the treatment of crime victims across Europe and, in particular, to secure safeguards for tourists.
In 2001 the Council of Ministers of the European Union agreed the Framework Decision on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings.(3) This Framework Decision is groundbreaking in that it sets out minimum standards for the treatment of victims of crime (and their families) that will apply throughout the EU. These standards will have a particular impact for those travelling abroad, ensuring that help and support is available. The Framework Decision provides victims with the right to:
- access to justice
- compensation in criminal proceedings, including legal costs and expenses
- give and receive information
- understand and be understood, and
- have allowance made for the disadvantages of living in a different member state from the one in which the crime was committed.
Chapter Two of this document looks at these provisions and the principles which underlie them in a little more detail. Chapter Three considers inequalities across Europe, while the fourth chapter looks at gaps in provisions for victims in the UK and Ireland. Chapter Five considers the separate issue of compensation from the state and Chapter Six looks at examples of best practice and the vital contribution of Victim Support. The final chapter concludes by looking to the future and the next steps necessary to secure improvements for crime victims across the European Union (EU).
Victim Support organisations are independent charities, which help people to cope with the , providing free and confidential support and information. Victim Support also promotes and advances the rights of victims and witnesses in all aspects of criminal justice and social policy.
As the laws and systems affecting victims and witnesses differ across the UK and Ireland, there are separate organisations for Victim Support in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; Scotland; and, the Republic of Ireland. However, we work to a common purpose and share joint aims. Each year we offer support to over 1,200,000 victims of crime.
Over the past few years, Victim Support has become increasingly aware of the range of problems facing people who become victims of crime while visiting an EU country other than their own. We have worked with many people who have received inconsistent, confusing and unsympathetic treatment and who have turned to us for support on their return home. In addition, through our colleagues in Europe we have learned how impressed EU citizens have been with the services they have received when travelling in the UK and Ireland.
Victim Support believes the Framework Decision is a vital step in the move towards achieving consistency between the various countries in Europe. The adoption of minimum standards should make a real difference to peoples' experience. It is therefore surprising that this important development has received so little public attention. Politicians, professionals working within criminal justice and social provision, travel agencies, embassies, Victim Support personnel - in fact all those who come into contact with victims of crime - need to be aware of these new European provisions. By publishing this document we hope to draw attention to the provisions and demonstrate their likely impact on the millions of ordinary citizens in Europe who are unfortunate enough to become victims of crime each year.
Role of The European Forum for Victim Services
The European Forum for Victim Services is a network of non-governmental organisations that provides community and court-based services for victims of crime. Victim Support in the UK and Ireland were founder members of the European Forum, which was established in 1990. The first Chair of the European Forum was a member of Victim Support Ireland and the current Chair is from the UK. The organisations in the UK and Ireland have been promoting the development of victim services throughout Europe and the promotion of policies for victims both in the context of criminal justice and in the wider social environment.
In 1996, The European Forum produced a major policy statement, Statement of victim's rights in the process of criminal justice (4), unveiled at a special meeting of the European Parliament in Brussels. The booklet was presented to the Swedish Commissioner, Anita Gradin, who was at that time the Head of the Commission for Security, Justice and Freedom. Several follow-up meetings were held with Mrs. Gradin, who developed a keen interest in the development of the rights of victims of crime. Her Commission set up a Committee of Experts which met during 1998 and 1999. Dame Helen Reeves, Chief Executive of Victim Support in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and other members of the European Forum were active members of the Committee, and all publications of the European Forum informed its work. The Committee produced a statement, Crime victims in the European Union: reflections on standards and action (5). This was adopted by the Commission on 14 July 2019 and endorsed by the Council of Ministers in October 1999. The rights of victims have since become firmly established on the agenda of the European Union and a new Commission for Justice and Home Affairs has since been set up to promote the work.
In January 2000, Portugal assumed the Presidency of the EU and the national victims' organisation in Portugal was instrumental in putting these issues in the centre of the criminal justice agenda. The first draft of a framework document was drawn up at this time, and this was followed up strongly by the French victims' organisation (INAVEM) when France took over the Presidency between July and December 2000.
Members of Victim Support have been closely involved in all these developments and negotiations, and we were delighted when the Framework Decision was formally adopted by the European Union in March 2001.
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