This week I have shared some of my experiences of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) with the BBC as a secondary victim of Josh’s murder, or the term I would prefer to use as a ‘co-victim’. I was asked to share my experiences to help shed a light on the inhumane way in which I was treated. For those of us who have experienced the CJS as a bereaved family member we know this journey actually adds to the pain of our traumatic bereavement. I have yet to speak to a co-victim/survivor who has found the experience manageable without trauma and re-victimisation. The exception being the families who have not participated in the process, and who have said they coped better not being a part of it. But should it be like this? Must bereaved victims not go through through the CJ process as innocent family members to insure justice is carried out, in order to avoid further trauma and re-victimisation? Or should we be treated with compassion and care along with the respect which should be shown to us?
As a mother it has and will always be my duty, and privilege, to ensure my children receive the best possible experiences they can in life. This did not change even in my deepest times of despair when I was mourning my only son. I was compelled to know why and how Josh’s life was taken and who would have wanted to do such a barbaric thing to him, to me, his family and his friends. I wanted to do all that I could to protect Josh’s memory and share with the world that his murder was an unprovoked attack and to let society know this can happen to anyone of us.
While I had no formal status in any shape or form especially in the court room, I wanted the justice system to recognise that I had a very legitimate interest in proceedings because here I hoped I would get the answers to the questions I had been asking, for four years. However, this day was not meant to be mine or Brooke’s and who represented Josh. As accommodating as we were while maintaining our dignity, we were often ignored throughout the trial. While placing ourselves strategically out of view from the jury to avoid being accused of swaying them by the defence should we dare cry, we were even less visible. We were treated as bystanders and as an inconvenience as we watched from the sidelines. The performance in the court room, which often insulted the intelligence of nearly everyone in it was beyond unbearable. We witnessed the draconian offerings made by the defence who went as far as being physically demonstrative stomping about. This was in stark contrast to the respect and dignity we maintained throughout and which was commended in the Judges closing remarks.
So what is there for victims of crime, who protects us from being pushed to the side, who helps us to have a voice to be heard and not just seen as an inconvenience? We have The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (VCOP) given to us by Government. I first learnt of it many months after Josh’s murder and not when I should have heard about it, when the Police and Victim Support came to my home at the start of the investigation. Neither was it given to me by any of the statutory agencies within during any point of my journey. I was told about it by another bereaved family member who had been through the CJS many years prior to me. Ironically the current VCOP had been published in October 2015, the very same month and year of Josh’s murder. This document lays out the victims key set of entitlements, and the ‘minimum’ service they should receive. The document covers many rights/entitlements and on the surface appearead to be a good starting point from which I could navigate the CJS. However, what it does not say is; if you do not receive the support and services as laid out in this document in a timely or joined up approach from one agency to the next you will have no recourse. Neither will you receive an apology as this may imply negligence or error on the part of the service which has failed you. In fact it should go as far to say you will most likely be ignored as you are not a participant and therefore actually do not have any rights or add any value to the investigation. Would you carry on reading it if this was written in the introduction? Would you refer to it if you felt that you would not be heard or taken seriously? While we have the revised simplified version of the VCOP which will come in to force in April which now includes the NHS as part of it services and is much easier to navigate, there is still a lot more which has to be done. For instance in spite of the numerous emails I have sent to the MoJ raising my concerns around terminology and the misleading time frame to appeal a sentence, the information relating to the Unduly Lenient Scheme within it fails to lay out the exact timeline for which to appeal. I would therefore suggest you reach out to your local Law Centre or one of the many victim support services for free advice and guidance when you are unsure about its contents.
As I worked my way through this document without professional advice or assistance, in spite of trying to get some, I soon realised it was nothing more than what should be done, and not what would be done. As I had already by this point been pushed from pillar to post from one statutory service to the next I knew that this document I held in my hand would not throw any weight behind my requests or the service I should be receiving. I discovered that the only way to make sure victims of crime receive the right support, and which should be tailored to the individual crime, is by having a Victims Law which would enshrine our rights and hold those who fail us directly responsible and accountable. I also started to seek more information and advice on bereaved families rights and soon found that Victims Commissioners starting with Louise Casey from as far back as 2011 to date have been recommending our rights be enshrined in law and yet their requests continue to fall on deaf ears.
While fighting for justice for Josh, fighting the CJS, and advocating and empowering bereaved victims by sharing everything I learnt along the way, I made a decision that I would do whatever I could to help make positive changes. With every case, every police investigation team, CPS lawyer, barrister and press officer, families bereaved by murder and manslaughter will experience a different level of service. This I have found is often down to the individual who is part of your journey at any one given time. It is very much hit and miss and haphazard and to be frank an insult to our basic human rights. When speaking to the BBC ahead of my TV interview I was reminded that I must speak in general terms, meaning not to point the finger at any one person. However, it has to be said that while the CJS as a whole needs an overhaul which would start by having a Victims Law, I have to be true to myself and say it more often than not falls down to the individual service you receive by anyone said individual within it. On a level of humanity a compassionate, caring and understanding individual within the system can make all of the difference between a victim being re-traumatised and re-victimised to one who experiences respect, consideration, hope and assurance that they are being heard and are not alone. I was asked by Joanna Gosling when being interviewed as part of the latest Victims Bill put forward by Peter Kyle MP, what practical things can be done, what would that arm around you look or feel like? The arm around me which I was very fortunate to have had by a few individuals who helped me to get through four years of hell, held the qualities I have just mentioned. Someone who has also experienced the CJS as a victims of crime, someone who stands in your shoes and imagines the unimaginable happening to them and asking themselves what support would they expect. This person would be called a Victim’s Advocate and they would help with practical problems and who challenges justice professionals on behalf of victims when things go wrong. From start to finished victims of crime must receive a joined up service and not be pushed from one service to the next and who all have their own sets of protocols and procedures which lack a joined up approach.
Bereaved family members in particular have experienced the most unimaginable damage that they will never recover from therefore as a society we should be treated with humanity to avoid further damage and offered the care we deserve.
#bereavedmum #fiveyears4months #victimslaw #Joshslaw #VCOP