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Scotland's justice system would be improved if victims were involved more

Here's my latest Scotsman column, published this week (17th January 2022).

I was disappointed to learn that so far no victim of crime had been permitted to attend a Parole Board meeting, despite changes to allow greater transparency.

It may be a Covid delay; let’s hope so, for it is a wasted opportunity to better reveal the work of the Parole Board. We usually only hear about it when things go wrong and, thankfully, that’s rare.

But, out of sight, they work through endless files and reports, trying to come to a safe conclusion. It’s never straightforward, usually with competing priorities.

On the one hand, we need to get our prison population down. We know that not much good comes from time in prison except that it keeps criminals off the streets.

On the other, the vast majority of prisoners are not dangerous and the sooner we get them back in the real world, the better.

That is the balance the Parole Board must strike. Its role would be better appreciated if the public got to see the complexity of their work. But, on the general point of involving victims in the justice system, for me, it is simple. There is no area of the system that is not improved by doing this, as they often bring a new dimension to our understanding of crime.

For years, our attitude has been a mix of patronising protection and fear of vengeful vigilantes. Both are generalisations and usually wrong. Of course, there will be some who need protection from further exposure to their tormentors and a few who seek vengeance, but mostly victims simply want respected, included and informed.

In the early 80s, I learned an important lesson as the lead investigator of a violent rape. A young woman had been attacked by a stranger and left with serious injuries.

There were no clues, no forensics and the crime did not fit any pattern. We had suspects but insufficient evidence for the Crown to take it forward. But throughout, the victim, a remarkable young woman, stayed close to the investigation, almost becoming a member of our squad.

We regularly met her to discuss leads and progress. She did everything she could to help, even suggesting that she submit herself to hypnosis, to see what else she could remember.

That awful crime remains unsolved but the victim stayed in touch and we exchanged Christmas cards for years. About ten years after the attack, we met her for coffee and I apologised for not bringing her attacker to justice.

She laughed, and told us she never wasted a minute thinking about him. Her only priority had been to recover both physically and mentally. She had found working with our detectives meaningful and therapeutic. She had felt valued, included and informed. More importantly, she did not think of herself as a victim.

It was a lesson I carried forward for the rest of my police service and I will always be grateful to that young woman.

With careful judgement, victims can contribute significantly to most criminal investigations. And they deserve a meaningful role, after all the justice system is theirs. All prosecutions are raised in the public interest.

Let’s hope the Lord Advocate uses her new broom to enhance the role of victims across our justice system. The full article is also available by clicking here.

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