New rights for victims of crime in Europe - Addressing unequal treatment across Europe

One in four people across Europe becomes a victim of crime each year. But the way in which victims are treated varies greatly from country to country. (6)

A Victim Support Scheme in the south of England had a call from the Foreign Office telling them of a British woman who had been raped while in Portugal. Since the Portuguese authorities do not cover expenses for crime victims to go back and give their evidence, they wanted to know if Victim Support would cover these costs. The national victims' organisation in Portugal was contacted and they agreed to cover the woman's hotel and subsistence costs. It is hoped that her travelling expenses will be raised through lobbying the local police etc. If this fails Victim Support will try to raise the funds itself.

By comparison, the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales covers all the expenses of victims of crime called as witnesses travelling from abroad.

Victims of crime get a good deal in the UK and Ireland

Victim Support is widely regarded as the most comprehensive and most highly developed victims' service organisation in Europe. As well as our work as a service provider, we have achieved major successes in increasing understanding and awareness of the and ensuring better recognition of victims' rights.

Most of the rights set out in the Framework Decision now apply within the UK and Ireland. In recent years, following major campaigns by Victim Support, there has been enormous growth in new policies and provision for victims and witnesses. Increasingly, our governments and the various criminal justice agencies have become more aware of, and responsive to, victims' legitimate interests in the criminal justice process.

Victims' rights are now firmly on the political agenda and minimum standards of service have been set out, for example in the Victim's charter (7) published by the Home Office in England and Wales. Service standards cover such issues as rights to information about the progress of a case, well-established rights to compensation, access to Victim Support's services and how to complain if the standards are not met.

In addition, criminal justice agencies are gradually becoming more aware of the impact of crime on victims and the need to avoid secondary victimisation caused by insensitive treatment. Staff training in victim awareness is now increasingly being offered and some criminal justice agencies employ specialist staff for their victim contact work. However, such progress has not been consistent across Europe and in some Member States victims' rights are still in their infancy. Victim Support is in contact with many people who have become the victims of crime while travelling to a European country other than their own. Frequently, these people have encountered a range of problems, the most common of which are:

A woman was raped while she was on holiday in Spain. On her return, both she and her mother sought help from their local Victim Support Scheme. As well as providing ongoing emotional support, the Scheme has helped with the specific problems that have arisen because the crime took place abroad; "They have had various problems with the insurance, but the worst thing of all has been that they have heard absolutely nothing from the police about how the case is progressing."

There is evidence that some legal jurisdictions in Europe have been reformed in favour of victims of crime. But progress is patchy especially in relation to victims' rights to information provision, protection and compensation.

A man whose daughter was murdered while she was travelling in Europe, explains some of the difficulties he, and other bereaved families, have faced; "Quite apart from the fact that none of these murders has been solved, we have shared difficulty in obtaining information from the [country] authorities, not only about the criminal investigation, but also about such matters as compensation, hiring a lawyer, translation of documents and letters, autopsy details and numerous other matters. We have visited [country] at least once a year and, although we have been received cordially, we have found the system to be slow, unaccountable, inefficient, bound by archaic procedural trivialities and largely without any recognition of the needs of the victims' family and close relatives."

Another major difference between EU Member States is the presence or absence of a well-established victims' organisation: both to provide direct services to victims and witnesses and to champion their interests and promote public awareness. Echoing the principles in the Framework Decision are the findings of research into the treatment of victims of crime in 22 European criminal justice systems: "The state, in co-operation with the criminal justice authorities and partners, should promote the creation of a national victim support organisation where lacking. These organisations not only improve the provision of free and easily accessible assistance to victims, but they are also important partners for the criminal justice authorities in providing information, legal assistance and practical help to victims." (8)

Victim Support organisations are well established in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, several countries in the EU have no national victims' organisation. In fact, when asking about the help received from a specialist victims' agency, the International Crime Victims Survey found that victims in the UK were offered the most support (Ireland was not included in the study.) (9)

Cases of crime victims supported by Victim Support Scotland

A family first heard that their relative had been murdered through the media. They travelled to Spain, where the murder had taken place, but once there received no offer of emotional support. They have experienced enormous difficulties accessing information about the progress of the investigation, particularly as the few documents that have been provided are written in Spanish. No translation or interpretation facilities were made available.

A man became the victim of a serious assault while he was living temporarily in the Netherlands. Since reporting the incident, all documentation has been provided in Dutch and he has been advised that a translation cannot be provided. He has contacted Victim Support in Scotland to assist him with his application for compensation.

A group of French students were attacked and badly beaten while visiting Scotland. They were immediately referred to Victim Support where emotional support and practical assistance was provided on both an individual and a group basis, using volunteers with appropriate language skills.

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