Each year, around 15% of Europeans or 75 million people in the European Union fall victim to crime – women, children, men, the young and old, people of all nationalities and faiths – crime affects us all. Crime is generally understood to be a deliberate act or omission that causes physical or psychological harm, or damage to or loss of property, and is punishable by law. A crime can take place against a person, a community, a society, or even a state.
The legal system of a country sets out the laws and penalties for the different types of crime that are carried out against its population. Criminal law defines the individual crimes, procedures for investigations and trials, and punishment for offenders, such as fines, community service, or imprisonment. Countries, such as Belgium, Spain, France, or Italy, use a criminal code or a penal code, based on current criminal law, while other countries, such as England, have a common law system, meaning that the law is based on past cases and court decisions rather than on specific laws.
In the European Union, law enforcement and legal cooperation in criminal matters between Member States are regulated by the Treaty of Lisbon, 1 January 2009. There is no centralised European Union legal system dealing with criminal law; however, efforts have been made to standardize existing laws through the Treaty of Lisbon, meaning that the European Union is working to ensure that while national laws may differ, victims of crime have access to justice at all times in all Member States, especially in cases of cross-border crime.
Efforts to standardize laws focus on three main areas: (1) serious and organised crime, such as sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, (2) crime that tends to be cross-border, involving more than one country, such as human trafficking, and (3) victims’ rights. The European Parliament and the Council can create rules to define criminal offences and punishments for serious cross-border crime: terrorism, human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering, corruption, counterfeiting, computer crime and organized crime.
There is much legislation related to crime and victims of crime in the European Union as well as on preventing human trafficking, on fighting terrorism, and on compensation to crime victims. The most inclusive piece of legislation is the Victims’ Rights Directive, which rules on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime,.
The Victims’ Rights Directive states that crime is “a wrong against society as well as a violation of the individual rights of victims” and states that “victims of crime should be recognised and treated in a respectful, sensitive and professional manner without discrimination of any kind based on any ground such as race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age, gender, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, residence status or health”. All Member States were required by law to adopt the contents of The Victims’ Rights Directive 2012, and put them into their national legal systems by 16 November 2015.
While the Victims’ Rights Directive has made helping victims of crime around the EU, more inclusive and victim-centred, there are still problems related to the adoption and execution of the Directive’s requirements. VOCIARE, an international project to assess the realization of the Directive around the EU, concluded that victims still lack the full support of national laws. However, today’s victims of crime in the European Union receive more protection and support than in the past.