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The Victims and Prisoners Bill: drawbacks, solutions, and what role for RJ4All?

A blog written by Olivia Millard, intern at RJ4All, during International Restorative Justice Week 2023 #RJWEEK

It is #RJweek and RJ4All takes the opportunity to comment on the latest developments of the Victims and Prisoners’ Bill that has been outstanding for far too long.

Before reading, an RJ4All disclaimer: “victims” and “offenders” are not labels we find useful when referring to restorative justice. Gavrielides (2020; 2021; 2022) explains that as we change our lenses, these terms are better replaced with “harmed” and “harming” parties to put an emphasis on restoring and healing as opposed to correcting the law alone. Furthermore, this article has been produced with the help of our RJ consultant Ben Lyons who provided his extensive expertise on the proposed bill.

The final stages: ensuring the right priorities 

Victims and Prisoners (V&P) Bill, currently in the report stage in the House of Commons in the Parliament, was created as a response to growing demands for victim-focused reform in the Criminal Justice System. However, the bill as it stands runs the risk of making matters worse for victims, by offering exemption to any failing coming from key criminal justice agencies, and by limiting their access to redress in law. 

The V&P bill aims to strengthen the rights of victims of criminal conduct, but there have been serious concerns about the ways it plans to achieve this, as we outlined in our recent update on the law proposal. The report stage is the fourth of five steps in each House of Parliament. Also known as the ‘consideration stage’, the V&P bill is still open to debate and potential amendments. 

RJ4All remains concerned about intentions to regulate and monopolise restorative justice from the top down. We have submitted evidence and published widely on the topic of community led practice and the value that the community sector brings to justice and restorative justice.

Victim support services: the new rules

A key concern about the bill is its new, highly restrictive set of provisions of ‘victim support services’. These services will be directed exclusively at victims of domestic abuse, serious violence, and/or criminal conduct of a sexual nature. Those who are not victims of these specific crimes are not addressed. 

The bill demands that the relevant authorities for a police area in England must prepare and implement a strategy to make such services accessible to the relevant victims. While developing this strategy, the authorities have a duty to consult both the victims and the organisations providing support to victims, as well as any other related groups, in order to gather all the necessary insight. 

As an organisation providing ongoing support to victims, RJ4All is committed and keen to be involved in the creation of a strategy for victim support along with relevant agencies such as the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). Our organisation does restorative justice case management and referrals can be filled through our referral form accessible online by anyone (self-referrals, standard referrals, third-party referrals).

We would willingly act as an agency to be consulted regarding the appropriate mechanisms and routes to come in place in order to achieve the most effective and efficient support of victims of these crimes. RJ4All stands out as one of the only specialist Restorative Justice agencies which has a strong background in academic research, as well as the right credentials for measuring the implementation of this policy and recommending relevant adjustments that reflect current needs. For effective strategies to be put in place, established agencies such as ours and others should be consulted, as organisations which can offer valuable input in a very sensitive discussion. 

Regulations concerning IDVAs and ISVAs 

The bill states that the government must issue guidance about independent domestic violence (IDVAs) and sexual violence (ISVAs) advisors. This again will be of high relevance for RJ4All and our staff team, as the restorative justice support we provide fits into the bill’s current definition of IDVA and ISVA (a person who provides a relevant service to individuals who are victims of criminal conduct which constitutes domestic abuse/sexual nature). The proposal also looks to create a statutory definition of IDVAs and ISVAs, an approach which has divided opinion. 

On the one hand, some organisations have cautioned against these definitions, on the basis that they risk creating a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach which would compromise any support that sits outside the standard model. Other groups welcome the definitions, hoping that it will increase awareness, and ultimately funding, for IDVAs and ISVAs across the country. Both groups advocate for the independence of the role to supersede any statutory definition, campaigning for an IDVA/ISVA umbrella which does not exclude any existing support networks.

It is our firm standing that restorative justice, although it has not been acknowledged and named in the V&P Bill as an option of a victim’s support service, can absolutely align with the scope of independent domestic and sexual violence advisory and support.

In terms of the government-issued directives referred to in the bill, there is currently an absence of guidance, even though the Act is nearly at its final approval stages. This presents a problem for organisations like RJ4All, because agencies offering ISVAs and IDVAs will control the field of provision, and any RJ agencies offering support to victims of either sexual or domestic violence will need to conform. The concern is that these new restrictions will actually limit accessibility for victims. ISVA/IDVA training courses are expensive, and therefore not feasible for all organisations. This therefore runs the risk of excluding victims who rely on these charities or centres for support, and may exacerbate any existing problems. 

What can we do? 

The interests of the victims must be at the very centre of the discussion around this bill, and organisations like RJ4All can offer valuable guidance to ensure the correct priorities. The bill is in the final stages of the Parliamentary process, and organisations sharing these concerns must act now to raise awareness about the potential impacts of this bill. 

As a final conclusion, RJ4All is calling on active RJ practitioners to get in touch with us and fill our RJ Practitioner Register Form, as we are building an up-to-date restorative justice practitioner register and looking to strengthen further our pool of expertise that we can rely on, according to individual and case needs. 

Sources: 

–       https://safelives.org.uk/victims-and-prisoners-bill
–       https://www.womensaid.org.uk/the-victims-bill-womens-aid-comments/.

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