This is our truth, tell us yours
I usually leave discussion of the law to my far more learned friend, but a story making the news this morning has reminded me just how poor most peoples understanding of UK law is, as well as the complete lack of moral or philosophical thought around our criminal justice system.
It seems a judge’s private comments on the efficacy of victim impact statements was accidentally relayed to those making it. He sounds like a fair, and decent man, expressing his concern that people tear open their hearts in the mistake belief that it affects the parole process. The media of course is up in arms, it is, as Carter commented yesterday, the silly season.
Victim impact statements are an odd thing born of a fundamental mistake people make about British law. Victims, or as in this case the family of the victim, are witnesses, nothing more. A court case is not between the victim, or their family, and the defendant, but between the crown and the defendant. That is why we list cases as R v Gray (and no that’s not a spoiler for the 50 shades of life on Mars mash up, I know as little as you do about where that is going). Victim impact statements were introduced because people objected to the fact those directly affected by a crime were treated the same as any other witness. This was meant to give them their moment when they explained what the crime had meant to them, to make the process more victim centered, without in anyway addressing the fact that we have an adversarial legal system where the impact is irrelevant. I wonder how much people were influenced by Grisham type court room dramas where the handsome young advocate wins the case by making an impassioned plea on the final day.
To get philosophical for a moment, what affect should a victim impact statement have? If someone has faith for example and forgives should the sentence be shorter? If someone has no support and is encouraged by the vulture like media to wear their grief like a scarlet letter should the sentence be longer? For someone like myself who says I am who I am, the impact of my abuse cannot be measured without falling into parallel worlds and pointless speculation, should an abuser be set free? Surely we should imprison, or release, on the danger to others and rules set around sentencing, not the emotional resilience and support systems of the victim and their families?
Some people want to criminal justice system to be about punishment, I understand that even whilst I disagree. But are they really saying that the sentence should be longer for burglary than for murder if the person who has been robbed puts forward an account of how it has devastated their life and the family of the murdered person says they are trying to move on an cope?
I am glad to hear that victim impact statements have no bearing on parole hearings. I want someones release to be based on their danger to the community, which may include the victim or those associated with them in certain cases. It would not be justice if parole were based on who told the greatest story of woe. I agree with the Judge though, politicians delude the general public over what victim impact statements are, too cowed by the tabloids and mob justice to be honest and say it is your voice, it is you moment to speak, and nothing more.