Victims have traditionally had, at best, a spectator role in the criminal justice system. But the public significance of the victim has shifted over successive governments.
This article focuses on two forms of political interaction – expert led policy development, and public inquiries. In carrying out inquiries, successive governments have, perhaps inadvertently, tended to replicate the ‘hierarchy of victimisation’ that is witnessed in frontline criminal justice activities. This has the result of affording victims only a spectator role when policy and legislative changes are being developed in their name.
By contrast, the actions taken in developing expert and practitioner‐led policy around victim experience have proved to be more ‘successful’ in generating lasting change.
In responding to victims’ needs, there is an ongoing conflict between political words and actions, and, particularly in the case of inquiries, the emerging role of victim resistance and anger.
Expert led policy development
Victim‐focused policy changes since 2010 have been aimed at improving the situation for specific vulnerable groups—such as those who have experienced domestic abuse, (cyber)stalking, and non‐consensual pornography—as well as attempting to improve the general experience for victims.
Although they signify incremental small steps in change, the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime, as well as domestic abuse policy, and developments in restorative justice demonstrate that the interaction between experts and practitioners with political bodies has the ability to produce policy and legislation that could make a genuine difference to the experiences of victims in the form of new offences and changes in practice guidance.
While this approach allows little opportunity for victims to participate, key players in the victim support community—including practitioners—work to ensure that they represent the ‘victim voice’ as authentically as possible.
Political, public facing, inquiries have long been utilised by governments to show that ‘something is being done’ in the aftermath of a high profile tragic incident. The drawing together of large groups of individuals affected by a shared experience—such as a single tragedy—to understand how to improve practice in the future or attempt to answer questions of ‘what went wrong’. The public inquiry potentially allows a greater level of participation in the policy process, since anyone who falls within the terms of reference can make representations.
However, while certainly a positive approach to participatory democracy, the competing nature of different groups’ needs alongside the temporary nature of such bodies makes the public inquiry a challenging climate in which to achieve long lasting change.
Grenfell Tower inquiry
A key example is the inquiry following the extensive fire in Grenfell Tower on the night of 14 June 2017. The sense that the tragedy and the subsequent loss of life could have been avoided quickly became the dominant media narrative. There were growing calls for ‘something to be done’.
Victim/resident outrage dominated the media narrative and loud calls for action were made. The swift coming together of the local authority, victims, residents, charitable organisations and private businesses undoubtedly helped to spur the government into action. A public inquiry was announced by Theresa May on 29 June 2017, which had its first hearing on 14 September 2017. It will explore the issues leading up to the fire, including why residents’ concerns over safety were not addressed, as well as the response of the emergency services and government in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
At this stage, it is not possible to be certain as to what the outcomes of the inquiry may be. However, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has generated a backlash from those affected before any real progress has been made or any outcomes suggested, thus reflecting the potentially conflicted and fragmented nature of public inquiry‐based policy development.
Although an important part of state apparatus, it is unlikely that a public, wide‐scale, inquiry will lead to outcomes that will satisfy all involved. Concerns notwithstanding, ‘the inquiry’ undoubtedly allows governments to demonstrate—in a high‐profile, public manner—that ‘action’ is being taken.
Spectator or participant?
Neither expert‐led policy development nor the public inquiry is a ‘perfect’ approach. The first offers breadth of experience but has the potential to leave those most directly affected on the margins of the policies made in their name. The second offers ‘participation’ but alongside the risk of no tangible outcomes due to the fragmentary, multi‐perspective, sometimes conflicting wants and needs of victims. Whilst the inquiries discussed in this article have yet to produce a final outcome, they have sought to include the ‘victim voice’ as much as possible.
Genuine participation by victims undoubtedly adds depth to any government consultation, while expert and practitioner input in public inquiries provides breadth of experience. Offering victims a chance to move from spectator to participant in this process will improve the potential for impactful policy to be created in their name.
Natacha Harding is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Winchester.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.
Image by ChiralJon.