Ellie Cumbo is a justice policy researcher and writer with experience of working in both victim and offender charities. She is also a not-uncritical Labour party member, is elected to the Fabian Women’s Network Executive, coordinates the non-partisan policy evidence website www.shouldwe.org, and tweets from @EllieCumbo. She is the latest contributor to a guest blog series setting out priorities for the new justice secretary.
The previous New Labour government relied a little too much on authoritarianism to resolve problems that required subtler solutions, and criminal justice was perhaps the clearest example. But there is nothing illiberal about the commitment they have set out in opposition to improve the way the system treats victims. Too often, the relative powerlessness of victims in criminal cases is forgotten, or assumed to be the inevitable consequence of the need to safeguard defendants’ rights. This is framing justice as a zero-sum game, which I don’t think we should accept.
1. No more prosecuting victims who deny their abuse
So my first priority as Justice Secretary would be to implement the 14 Labour Victims’ Taskforce recommendations for a new Victims’ Law. And I would add a 15th, following the infamous 2012 case of ‘Sarah’, imprisoned for retracting what had in fact been a true allegation of rape. Despite CPS guidelines making this rarer, it still remains possible in our law to prosecute a victim for denying their abuse. This creates a wholly perverse incentive for the police, who should be working to make victims feel able to report crime; not arresting them when they do not. It would be a small tweak, but a symbolic one.
2. Treat children as children
My second priority would involve finding a level of confidence I won’t pretend it’s easy for a new minister to muster. In politics, the imperative is always to be doing something new; instead, I propose at least one act of undoing. In 1998, legislation was passed to end the presumption known as doli incapax, by which the state had to show a child aged 10-14 had enough understanding of right and wrong before they could be prosecuted. In 2015, or not long after, the next government should put it straight back again, in line with virtually every other county in the civilised world.
This would reflect our increased understanding of how maturity develops over time, as per the paradigm-shifting work of the Transitions 2 Adulthood Alliance. What’s more, in the long and still rippling wake of Operation Yewtree, we have at last begun to see real popular conviction behind the idea that children in their early teens do not have the same capacity to consent to sex as adults. The time is right to accept that this must have consequences for their criminal responsibility also, and to restore a social instead of criminal approach to such troubled young people.
3. Rights for offenders’ families
There are a hundred things I’d like to do as my third priority, like reverse the cuts to prison budgets or fully implement the Corston review. But unless I also happened to have time-shifting superpowers, the likelihood is that I couldn’t afford any of them. But there is one more thing that’s fairly inexpensive, cannot be cast as either soft or illiberal and would finally bring a much-neglected group of justice “users” into the light. Based on the Victims’ Code model, I would create a charter of rights for offenders’ families.
This should gather together and secure all those obligations the state owes this group of citizens, both legal and moral, in terms of information, visit facilitation, and support with the emotional and practical consequences of having their family suddenly and shockingly reshaped despite having committed no crime themselves.
In short, my three priorities would be what I personally look for in any politician: compassion, a clear-eyed view of injustice, and the courage to act upon it.
The purpose of this blog series is to stimulate a debate about where our criminal justice system should be heading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the justice priorities should be.