Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Putting Victims first – Better protection and support for victims of crime
Conference "Victims of Crime in the EU – The post-Lisbon legislative agenda"
Trier, 9 June 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be with you today to discuss victims rights.
First of all, I want to thank the European Law Academy – ERA for organising this conference. I very much appreciate the central role of ERA in promoting knowledge and training on EU law and on the development of an effective European judicial area. Today's event is very timely and shows how central ERA's events are to the European political cycle. As you are aware, the Commission has recently presented proposals to strengthen victims' rights which I will be explaining to the Justice Ministers of the European Union tomorrow in Luxembourg. I would also like to thank you, legal practitioners, academics, victims' rights experts and campaigners for your dedication in promoting the voice and the rights of victims. Your insights and expertise have been essential to our work. Strengthening victims' rights is a strategic priority of the Commission and an important step forward for the European area of justice. Stronger rights for victims mean a stronger justice system. Our criminal justice systems focus on catching criminals and punishing the offenders. In the process they end up neglecting victims. Tough words about crime do not do anything for victims, unless they are followed up by concrete action. This is why we need to rebalance justice in Europe to provide victims of crime with the services, compensation and information that they need. In other words we must put victims first.
That is why I presented a package of proposals on victims' rights on 18 May. But why are the rights of victims so important?
Why are the rights of victims important?
Simply put, it is a universal problem – crime concerns us all.
Anyone can fall victim to crime, at any time. Only last week a young woman was shot outside Düsseldorf main station. The shooter was firing randomly at people who were simply going about their daily business. People do not choose to become victims of crime; it is crime that is inflicted on victims. Almost all of us know someone who is a victim of crime or violence – who has been robbed, assaulted or had property stolen. Mugging in the street or burglary of a home: crime can happen anywhere, at any time. The numbers are staggering. Around 30 million crimes are reported every year and this only represents around 40-50% of all crime. Many victims simply do not report what has happened. And many more people – the immediate family of victims – also suffer the consequences of those crimes. Family members of victims often suffer and are in need of support and protection.
Crime affects millions of people every year. It has costs for individuals, families, businesses, for the economy and our societies. If victims are treated properly from the outset we can reduce the impact of crime for everyone. This is why victims have to be at the heart of our justice systems.
Clearly, our first goal is to prevent crime and accidents in the first place. But where people do fall victim, we must protect and assist them.
I have a clear and simple vision – that victims are recognised, that their role in the criminal justice systems across the Union is recognised, and that their needs are met – wherever they are in the European Union and no matter where they come from or where they live. We have to make sure that all victims are treated properly and without discrimination. Victims should be given a voice in the criminal justice systems, and their needs should come first.
What are the needs of victims of crime?
So what are victims' needs?
Whether they are victims of a terrorist attack, a robbery or sexual assault, all victims have a range of needs in the aftermath of a crime and during the judicial process that follows. Broadly speaking, we can summarise the needs of victims in five categories: the need to be recognised and treated with respect and dignity; the need to be protected; the need to be supported; the need to access justice; and the need for compensation and restoration.
Meeting the needs of victims plays an important role in assuring victims' rights and achieving a high quality of justice in the European Union. It is also a key component in the strengthening of mutual trust between our justice systems. It is therefore crucial to acknowledge victims, to take their suffering seriously and to help them get on with their lives.
Changing cultures and attitudes will be crucial. Our justice systems have not been designed with the victim in mind. They have been focused on prosecuting the offender and defending society. The treatment of victims reflects this approach. I would like to see the European Union leading the way for a clear shift in the mindset of policy makers and of those working in the justice system. Victims' needs are a central part of ensuring justice, as are catching and punishing the offender.
Victims have needs. They have rights and a role to play in criminal proceedings. How can we make sure victims' needs are met and their rights respected?
The Lisbon Treaty, legal basis and mutual trust
The European Union took action to address the rights of victims in criminal proceedings in the Council Framework Decision from 2001, and most Member States have put some level of victim protection and support in place. But the old rules have largely been insufficient as today serious problems as well as significant inefficiencies remain. Victims' needs are generally not met in the national judicial systems and the level of victims' rights differs widely from country to country.
The Lisbon Treaty provides the European Union with a clear legal basis to act. We can now put in place European rules in favour of victims and make a difference by providing tangible results for the protection of victims.
This is why on 18 May I presented a legal framework to ensure that victims are given the same non-discriminatory minimum level of rights, services and access to justice, everywhere in the European Union. Any support should be tailored to victims' needs, to help them see that justice is done and to ease their difficult journey of recovery.
Beyond alleviating victims' suffering, this new legislative package, which is a first instalment, is important for the European area of justice as a whole. This package is a building block for reinforcing the mutual trust that is fundamental to develop a fully functioning European judicial area.
Mutual trust implies that judiciaries have faith in each others' standards of fairness and justice. European citizens should have confidence that the same level of minimum rules will be applied should they travel or live abroad.
To help create such trust, I want strong and clear obligations for authorities to meet the needs of victims anywhere in the European Union. We will make full use of the Lisbon Treaty tools to reinforce judicial protection.
Obviously, we will provide support to the Member States to ensure those rules become a reality. For the first time, the European Commission has the power to make sure these rules are put in place and respected. Victims' rights have always been a priority for us. But now we have the political mandate to take strong action. I am firmly committed to making use of this mandate for the benefit of victims.
What is in the Victims package?
We often hear of victims who do not know where to go or who to turn to for help and protection, especially if the crime happened abroad. The Directive on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime sets out a whole range of direct, practical action to help victims of crime.
Victims will have access to concrete rights and services, such as easily accessible victim support services in all Member States. These support services, which should provide support to people who suffer crime and help them navigate confusing and often frustrating legal proceedings as well as through practical day to day issues, must meet specified minimum standards. New rules do not immediately translate into results on the ground. That is why we need training to make sure everyone in the justice process understands the needs of victims. Police, prosecutors and court staff will have to be trained in victims' matters in all Member States and judges should equally have access to such training. At the heart of our approach is the notion that victims are individuals and must be treated as such. This is why under the Directive they will receive individual assessment to determine what vulnerabilities they have and how best they can be met. And once identified as vulnerable, victims will have access to special measures protecting them. For example they can give evidence by video link. We have to do more to identify and protect vulnerable victims, such as children or victims of sexual assault.
Interpretation and translation will be available to victims, so they know what is happening throughout the investigation and proceedings. Only an informed victim can play the active role in the proceedings they are entitled to.
The victim also has a right to request a review of a decision to not prosecute, which is currently not possible in all Member States. The exact mechanism for carrying out such a review will be determined at national level.
Contact between the offender and victim will be minimised during proceedings. As victims should have the right to be protected from the accused Member States should progressively ensure that contact between the accused and the victim can be avoided during criminal proceedings. This is particularly important to avoid intimidation of victims, for example when the offender is part of an organised crime network.
Mediation and other forms of restorative justice are also used around the EU. They can be of great benefit to victims where carried out to the right standards. This is why minimum safeguards are established in the Directive where Restorative justice services are use.
Let me say a word on the scope of the new Directive: in general the legislation will relate to direct victims. However, rights will apply to the immediate family of victims killed as a result of a criminal offence as well. Support services and protection will be available to the immediate family of all victims.
The Commission also proposed measures to protect victims who are at risk of suffering violence. Those who benefit from a protection measure in their home country will maintain protection when crossing borders. We proposed a fast, efficient mutual recognition mechanism for protection measures taken in civil matters. Our Regulation will complement the Member States' proposed Directive on the European Protection Order.
But there is much more to do.
Let me stress that the present package of minimum rules is just a first step to address victims' rights. We will continue to examine key issues relating to victims, for instance by improving the application of the 2004 Directive on compensation for crime victims and studying the provision of legal aid to victims. I also want to look at other ideas, such as victims surcharge fines or offender compensation or restitution schemes to ensure that victims across Europe obtain a fair compensation to the crime that was inflicted on them. Next year I will therefore come up with a second package of measures to ensure that we develop a sustained effort in strengthening the rights of the victims of crime.
To this end, we will need to ensure that the package presented on 18 May is acted upon by the European Parliament and by the Council quickly. To that end, I will need your expertise, your ideas and your help to ensure that the rights of victims of crime are clearly understood and supported by those who will have to be taking decisions at national level.
The victims' package will help guarantee a proper balance between the need to fight and reduce criminality, the protection of victims, and the protection of fundamental rights.
To strengthen mutual trust across the European Union we have a duty not only to uphold the rights of individuals who are accused or convicted of a crime but also to protect the rights of the victims of crime. This is why I want to ensure that around Europe, victims' needs are recognised and victims treated with respect and sensitivity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We will never be able to reverse the suffering of victims of crime or restore all that they have lost. We must, nevertheless, do our utmost to minimize the frustration and confusion that victims of a crime have to live through after the crime. Their rights and their role in criminal proceedings need therefore to be strengthened. Justice cannot be done if the victim is not treated justly. With our proposals, we are making full use of the new possibilities provided by the Lisbon Treaty to improve the position and treatment of victims of crime. I will measure the success of this legislative package by the tangible results it yields for the victims.
I am confident that together with the European Parliament, with the Member States, civil society and with your continued support we can turn these rules into reality for victims, everywhere in the European Union. Together, we can achieve real change for victims of crime in Europe. They deserve nothing less.