Victims' Rights

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:32 pm on 15th September 2005.

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Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 5:32 pm, 15th September 2005

I, too, thank Margaret Jamieson for introducing this important debate. I share the commitment that she and other members have shown to putting victims and witnesses at the heart of our policies and legislation.

I say to Patrick Harvie that I do not see any contradiction between, on the one hand, being on the side of victims and wanting to ensure the best possible deal for them and, on the other hand, taking action as the Minister for Justice to tackle problems in our prisons and to ensure that our justice system deals with reoffending problems and tries to reduce the number of victims who will suffer in the future.

I understand Margaret Jamieson's views and other views that have been expressed. Sometimes it seems unjust or unfair to think that prisoners will somehow benefit financially from their imprisonment. I hope that people understand that I cannot comment on courts' decisions in individual cases and that, as a minister, of course I have to uphold the law and court judgments. However, if we are serious about justice and respect for the people of Scotland, it is important to think about individual human rights as well as social and collective rights, so that we can ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to have their interests considered in law and legislation.

Kenny MacAskill was correct to follow up on Margaret Jamieson's comments on the general rights of victims and slopping-out issues. I welcome his recognition of the work that has been done by the Executive and the Solicitor General for Scotland in that context. Like Margaret Jamieson, he expressed concern about the lack of balance in the process and he pointed out that the issue involves not only the amount of compensation money—Margaret Jamieson and others have raised that issue, too—but the wider impact on the public purse and the legal aid bill.

In this morning's debate on the Family Law (Scotland) Bill, we heard about people who think that their access to justice to deal with daily problems that families face is being denied. People sometimes feel that those in the criminal justice system can take up cases while ordinary law-abiding citizens do not receive support. The Executive must seriously examine that issue when we consider legal aid reforms.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority runs one of the oldest and most generous compensation schemes of its kind in the world, although that does not mean that we cannot improve things. The scheme compensated almost 5,000 victims of violent crime in Scotland last year, paying out more than £20 million. In some ways, that does not give me a great deal of comfort, as I want to see an end to such violence and an end to victims having to go through that process to gain compensation. Nonetheless, the total averages out at just over £4,350 per claim. As members will know, the scheme allows victims to make a claim to the authority, as opposed to making one against the offender. That is an important principle. If the victim is eligible, within the rules of the scheme, he or she will be guaranteed payment irrespective of the means of the offender. I would not want us to lose that principle.

Other routes allow victims to be compensated by offenders. A court can grant a compensation order to a victim, which is not limited to loss through personal injury. A victim can take their own civil action for damages against an offender, under the law of delict, if the offender has means. In those circumstances, the victim may be eligible for legal aid in pursuing that action. However, an important point that is raised in Margaret Jamieson's motion and that has been mentioned in the speeches that we have heard is that, if the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has paid compensation to a victim out of public funds, it should be able to pursue the offender to recoup the amount that has been paid out. That is why we have included provisions to that effect in section 13 of the Management of Offenders etc (Scotland) Bill, to amend the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1995.

I note Margaret Jamieson's concern about the time bar. She has pointed out other circumstances in which there are no time bars. We must strive to ensure that the rules on the time bar strike a balance between the rights of those who are pursuing claims and the rights of defendants to know that, after a set time, no claim can be made. That is important and it is an issue that we will examine during consideration of the Management of Offenders etc (Scotland) Bill. If any amendments were to be lodged to that bill, we would need to see whether we felt that a change could be made that improved the position but that, at the same time, protected those principles.

Margaret Mitchell and Elaine Murray made a number of points on the position of victims in general. Part of the reason why we have moved to speed up the court processes to deal with the reforms under the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2004 is to ensure that people do not have to go through the anguish of multiple appearances. Recent figures suggest that around 1,000 people—victims and witnesses—have been helped by those reforms. I assure Elaine Murray that I want to see the issue dealt with as we go through the process of summary justice reform.

Patrick Harvie said that it was with deep regret that he made some of his comments. I return to what I said at the beginning of my speech. Of course I want us to improve the whole range of resources that are available to help people who commit crime to turn their lives around and to ensure that they do not commit further crimes. Victims expect us to do that; they expect to see punishment and they expect us to move on rehabilitation. Patrick Harvie also said that some offenders are themselves the victims of crime. I do not doubt that. However, that does not excuse their actions. There can be no circumstances in which the fact that someone has been a victim allows them to commit crimes against someone else. I believe strongly that that is why we need a joined-up approach to the management of offenders.

Margaret Jamieson outlines several other interesting ideas in her motion and has raised them again this afternoon. It is right and proper that we should have this kind of debate, which opens up the possibility of future debate. The point was made in this morning's debate on family law, in which there are sensitive issues, that we must consider all the possibilities properly and get the balance right. We must not rush to law and end up making bad law in response to specific cases. That is why it is right and proper that we have had this debate this afternoon. I will reflect on all the comments that members have made and we will have further opportunities to discuss the matter in due course.

Meeting closed at 17:39.