The Victims' Law – an opportunity for restorative justice?

Tucked away in last month’s Queen’s Speech was the line “Measures will be brought forward to increase the rights of victims of crime”. This confirms that the promise contained in the Conservative manifesto to introduce a new Victims’ Law will be delivered during the current parliamentary session.

The lengthy notes that accompanied the Queen’s Speech provide some more details on what this legislation will contain. The benefits will include, according to these notes, “giving victims a voice in the criminal justice system and the opportunity to explain how a crime has affected them”. To date, this appears to have been conceived primarily in terms of giving victims a right to make a Victim Personal Statement and read it out in court and at the Parole Board.

There may be benefits to this, but we know that if we want to genuinely give victims a voice and engage them fully in the justice process, the best way to do this is through enabling them to take part in restorative justice. So what part should restorative justice play in the new Victims’ Law?

The new legislation will, we are told, put “the key entitlements of the Victims’ Code in primary legislation”. This could include transferring the entitlements related to restorative justice contained in the Victims’ Code into legislation, which would give them more power and make them easier to enforce. But would that be enough? On restorative justice, the current Victims’ Code offers different entitlements dependent on whether the offender was a young person or an adult. Surely, in a piece of legislation aimed at improving victims’ experiences of the justice system, their rights shouldn’t be dependent on the age of their offender?

With that in mind, wouldn’t it be better if all victims were given a right to access restorative justice and a responsibility was placed on all criminal justice agencies to provide information to victims on how to do so? With funding having been distributed by the Ministry of Justice to Police and Crime Commissioners to provide victim-initiated restorative justice, the provision should now be in place to make this possible.

This could be a significant step forwards in ensuring much more widespread access to restorative justice. It would need to be made clear to all victims that restorative justice can only take place if their offender wants to participate. But even with this qualification, a right to access restorative justice, embedded in primary legislation, would be a major step forward. The forthcoming Victims’ Law presents a significant opportunity for restorative justice. The Restorative Justice Council will be urging all those involved in developing the Bill to seize it.