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Victim study prompts OPP action

Victim study prompts OPP action

By Carolyn Ford


Lawyers are urged to more effectively consider the views of victims of crime before reaching prosecution decisions.

The Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) has committed to implement the recommendations of a report into the communication needs of victims of crime by RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ).

Ensuring victims' views are sought, heard and properly taken into account by the lawyer before resolution is one of the recommendations in the report, “Communicating with Victims about Resolution Decisions: A Study of Victims’ Experiences and Communicating Needs”, commissioned by the OPP in 2017 and launched in May.

Challenges inherent in the prosecutor’s role were acknowledged. Prosecutors had to balance their duties to act independently and fairly with their responsibilities to victims, as well as manage pressure by the courts to resolve matters quickly and unrealistic expectations of victims. Victims might also want the lawyer to act in their personal interests – when they are acting for the Victorian community – and also might be distressed.

Despite these challenges, the OPP would implement the report recommendations, Solicitor of Public Prosecutions John Cain said.

“The OPP is determined to improve the experience of victims in the criminal justice system and this report sheds light on how we can better communicate with them about complex decisions,” Mr Cain said. “In line with the recommendations, we have already taken steps to provide training for our lawyers on best-practice communication and will update our procedures to reflect this.

“Over the past few years we have been reviewing every aspect of our work to improve outcomes for victims. As part of this we launched a new website for victims, a victim support dog program and we now have social workers and lawyers working together in multidisciplinary teams.”

Eighteen victims of crime who had participated in prosecutions by the OPP, lawyers and social workers were surveyed for the report.

In most cases, lawyers did a good job informing victims about the prosecution, but there was room for improvement, said CIJ associate director Stan Winford.

“Victims told us they want to actively participate in the decision-making process,” Mr Winford said.

“While they generally accept resolution decisions are the OPP’s to make, they don’t merely want to be told about a decision. They want the chance to express their views, and for those views to be taken into account by the lawyer.”

According to the report, victims want enough information to enable them to contribute an informed view and to have a strong professional relationship with the OPP lawyer.

For many victims, the process of being consulted was just as important as the outcome, said report co-author and CIJ senior adviser Nareeda Lewers.

“Our findings show victims are more likely to be confident in the outcome if they are properly consulted, but less so if they are not. It is the process that makes the difference.”

The report findings are relevant to all lawyers involved in criminal prosecutions and their employers.

Recommendations for the OPP

  • Document and distribute a best-practice guide for lawyers for consulting and communicating with victims, and identify opportunities for support.
  • Review relevant policies and practice guides to promote best-practice.
  • Liaise with Victoria Police to support effective communication with victims by police.
  • Liaise with court representatives to highlight the value of providing sufficient time to consult victims about resolutions. Some victims surveyed were critical when lawyers made assumptions about what was important to them, tried to “sell” a resolution, consulted in a “tick the box” way and they felt they were treated as “just another number”.

Victims appreciated lawyers building a rapport, demonstrating they understood what was important to victims as individuals and feeling their views mattered to lawyers; lawyers who treated them in ways they experienced as warm, considerate, sympathetic, caring and respectful, ie treating them as equals and not talking down to them; and lawyers who were forthcoming with information, answered questions, took time to explain clearly, provided specific information and were proactive in providing information.

Victims were disappointed when lawyers treated them in ways they experienced as cold, clinical, unapproachable, rude or patronising; withheld information; only communicated with one victim, expecting that person to relay information to other victims or family members; did not demonstrate empathy, make eye contact, tell sexual assault victims they were believed, or used inaccessible language.

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