Wednesday, 7 November 2007
Victim Impact Statements.
Question 41: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the changes he proposes to introduce on the matter of victim impact statements submitted to the courts in criminal cases; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27354/07]
Unfortunately, the Minister cannot take Questions Nos. 41 and 50 together because Question No. 50 is an Oral Question and Question No. 41 is a Priority Question and a Priority Question may not be grouped with an Oral Question. The Minister will be required to answer Question No. 41 on its own.
I apologise to the House.
Victim impact statements are among the most effective mechanisms available to ensure the interests and concerns of the victims of crime are brought to bear on the criminal justice process. As section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 puts it, the court, before passing sentence, is required to take into account any effect, whether long term or otherwise, of the offence on the person in respect of whom the offence was committed. This is one of the rare instances where the court is specifically directed as to a matter to be taken into account at the sentencing stage; courts otherwise, other than in murder cases, have a very large measure of discretion as to the matters to be considered in the context of determining the appropriate sentence. As a result of the procedure under section 5 of the 1993 Act, victims can expect to have a level of involvement beyond that of a mere witness.
I am aware of the recent debate about victim impact statements which I have followed with close interest. As we are all aware, the debate arises from a particularly difficult and tragic case. In those circumstances, I felt it was better for me as Minister not to become involved in the discussion. That is not to say that either I or my Department are not reflecting on the issues and may, if considered necessary and appropriate, bring forward proposals which will address any defect in the current arrangements or which may enhance further the role of the victim.
The reflection I have referred to takes account not only of the recent debate but also includes consideration of the very helpful comments made by the balance in the criminal law review group, chaired by Dr. Gerard Hogan SC, in its report earlier this year. With regard to the current arrangements under section 5 of the 1993 Act, the review group suggests the section may be too restrictive in so far as it permits a statement by or on behalf of the direct victim only.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
It suggests there is a case for expanding the definition of victim to include other persons intimately affected by the crime. This is frequently the case in homicide cases where the victim is, of course, unavailable but a close relative is, at the court's discretion, permitted to make or provide a statement.
The review group also goes on to discuss the possible use of victim impact statements at the parole or remission stage and places this issue in the context of restorative justice, that is, the victim would have an opportunity to address the perpetrator directly, to make him or her realise more fully the harm that has been done.
In a further recommendation, the review group addressed the possibility of inappropriate use of statements and raised the possibility of restrictions on publication in certain circumstances, at the direction of the court.
I will continue to reflect on and consider how the current system can be improved. In my considerations, I will endeavour to ensure that the victim is allowed as much opportunity as is reasonably possible to have his or her experiences taken into account. However, I must also ensure that, in the interests of all parties, we preserve the integrity of the criminal process and that due process continues to be observed.
Deputies will appreciate the issues involved are complex and require careful consideration. It will, therefore, be necessary to take some time to ensure any proposals are appropriate and well grounded.
It was my intention to formally invite the Minister to make an official comment on recent matters with particular reference to the very trenchant contribution of Mr. Justice Paul Carney and a further contribution of some gravity to the debate by Ms Justice Fidelma Macken, where she spoke in terms of the possibility of warning a victim and went so far as to suggest that perhaps penalties might be imposed on certain victims in certain circumstances. I would have thought it timely for the Minister to respond but I understand he has declined the invitation to make a statement. Does the Minister acknowledge the right of a victim to make a statement? Does he intend to give greater rights to victims of crime by way of access to information and by granting them an entitlement to speak before sentencing? Will he indicate what type of examination is under way within his Department, having regard to the fact that he would rather not comment on the matter?
I indicated that I preferred not to comment on the matter at the time of the controversy and I welcome Deputy Flanagan's tabling of this question. I do not propose to introduce legislation which will penalise a victim in any way. I understand the reason for Ms Justice Macken raising that possibility but I am not disposed to doing that. An examination is being conducted of two of the legal principles involved in particular. One relates to the definition of who is a victim for this purpose. The current arrangement contains a narrow definition of the direct victim. There is a case for expanding the definition of victim to include other persons intimately affected by the crime. This is frequently the case in a homicide case where the victim by definition is unavailable but a close relative can be permitted to make or provide a statement.
With regard to the inappropriate use of statements, the review group suggested that publication and circumstances might be restricted at the discretion of the court and I believe this is a matter we will have to consider.
That would require legislation because any interference with the publicity of the administration of justice has to be specified in legislation. It is clear that were we to give the trial judge power to direct the reporters not to publish particular material which a victim put before a court and which the judge believed would be inappropriate, having regard to his or her sentencing function, then in that situation we would have to consider legislation.