Harman welcomes bereaved into court

A pilot scheme that allows bereaved people to appear in court for the first time allows victims’ families an opportunity to speak in murder cases, the constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman said today.

Last April the government launched the victim’s advocate scheme, which allows relatives to make a statement to the judge after a conviction, detailing what the victim was like and what the loss has meant for them.

For the first time, the scheme gives judges, barristers, offenders and the public the chance to understand the crime from the perspective of the victim’s relatives, Ms Harman claimed.

She said: “Prior to this scheme, many families in homicide cases told me they felt gagged in court; that everybody would speak.[but] the only people who would never have a chance to say anything in court were the people who actually cared most about the person killed.

“Allowing the victims’ relatives to speak in court is about the criminal justice system being prepared to listen and learn from those most directly affected by the most serious of all crimes.”

The scheme has been trialed in five courts in England and Wales and 21 families have taken the opportunity to tell the courts how the crime has affected them.

Following its success so far the government is considering extending the scheme to other types of crime.

However, the pilot has not been universally welcomed, with some judges concerned about the scheme.

Judge John Samuels, a leading circuit judge, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it risks creating the impression that advocates can influence the judge’s decision.

“In most situations an emotional situation is made worse by producing a highly charged emotional atmosphere within a court room,” he claimed.

“It is the judge’s responsibility to lower the emotional temperature. There is more than enough emotional atmosphere in the average court, particularly where there has been a death or more particularly when the death is that of a child or a particularly vulnerable person.”