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Empowering Victims: How COVIS Partners’ Advocacy Secured Court-Based Support in the Recently Proposed EU’s Victims’ Rights Directive

Wed 5 June 2024 12:00
In Conversation With Frida Wheldon, Victim Support Sweden and Leader of the COVIS project

Marina Kazakova, VSE: Good morning, Frida. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. You recently shared some exciting news about the proposal of the revised EU Directive for victims of crime. Can you tell us more about the key development you mentioned? 

Frida Wheldon, Victim Support Sweden: Good morning! Absolutely, I’d be happy to. On the 12th of July 2023, the European Commission published a proposal for an updated Directive for victims of crime, and it’s a significant milestone for all of us who have been advocating for stronger rights for victims of crime, in particular the right to support. One of the most exciting aspects of this new Directive is the inclusion of the “Right to assistance at the court.” This means that Member States would be obligated to establish support services at court premises to provide information and emotional support to victims. 

Marina Kazakova, VSE: That’s indeed a remarkable development. Can you share why this new right is so important for victims of crime? 

Frida Wheldon, Victim Support Sweden: Certainly. This new right addresses a critical gap in the support system for victims of crime. In many cases, victims face numerous challenges when participating in criminal proceedings as many do not understand how the criminal justice system works, what is expected of them and what their rights and options are. Arriving at court without knowing what to expect and without anyone to provide support and help to navigate the criminal justice system may make the victim feel both anxious and frightened. This may in turn impact on their well-being as well as the quality of evidence they are able to provide to the court. Some victims who are left to fend for themselves find that the trial and the manner in which they are treated is so traumatic that it gives rise to secondary victimisation. The negative impact on victims forced to participate in criminal justice hearings is supported by research, with several studies identifying an increasing number of victims having such negative experiences in the criminal justice system that they would never report a crime again. Information from victims and witnesses are often vital parts of a successful trial, so victims choosing to not cooperate with criminal justice agencies seriously hinders States´ ability to secure safe and just societies.  This link between court based support services and the ability to deliver safe and effective criminal justice systems is becoming more evident. In fact, many Member States have identified that information and emotional support in connection with criminal trials can determine whether or not a crime is brought to court and the victim able to access justice and redress. While some victims can receive legal aid, it’s not available to everyone, and the criteria can be stringent in some Member States. This new right ensures that victims have the right to be accompanied by someone other than a lawyer who can provide advice on their role and rights during the proceedings and offer emotional support. Importantly, it extends this support to the trial stage, not just the investigation phase. That is why I have worked so hard to secure stronger support rights in connection with criminal trials and I are absolutely delighted to see this new, vital right being included as one of the most important rights in the updated EU Directive.  

Marina Kazakova, VSE: That’s a significant expansion of support for victims. Can you tell us more about the background and context that led to the inclusion of this right in the updated Directive? 

Frida Wheldon, Victim Support Sweden: Certainly. The preamble of the updated Directive sheds light on the reasoning behind this right. It emphasises that victims’ participation in criminal proceedings can be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, without the right support and guidance. While legal representation is crucial, not all victims have access to it. This is where the “Right to assistance at the court” comes into play, ensuring that all victims have the support they need to navigate the legal process effectively. It’s a vital step in minimising the negative impact of crime, preventing secondary victimisation during criminal proceedingswhile promoting victims’ rights and helping victims access justice in the aftermath of crime. 

Marina Kazakova, VSE: It’s clear that this is a significant achievement. Can you also touch upon the mention of V-SAC in the document and its role in this context? 

Frida Wheldon, Victim Support Sweden: Absolutely! It’s a moment of pride for all of us. The review and update of the EU Directive actually highlights V-SAC as an example of good practice for providing assistance and information in court. As part of the COVIS project (Court Based Victim and Witness Support), we often mention V-SAC, their referral system of victims and witnesses participating in a trial and, in particular, their excellent Victim Unit premises in Dublin in which they provide support as great examples of best practices for delivering quality court based support. This recognition of V-SAC by the EU Commission is also a testament to our joint efforts across Europe in bridging the gap between NGO supporters like us and criminal justice professionals, including court staff. The vital work of volunteers and the NGO is hereby seen as an integral part of the court system, which is a tremendous accomplishment. This recognition can open up new avenues for improved collaboration and advocacy, with the aim of ensuring that all victims and witnesses are able to access support and information in connection with criminal trials. Well done V-SAC! 

Marina Kazakova, VSE: That’s truly commendable! Lastly, what are your thoughts on how this new right can be leveraged in your organisation’s future advocacy activities? 

Frida Wheldon, Victim Support Sweden: I’m thrilled to think about the possibilities this new right opens up for our advocacy efforts. We can use this as a springboard to raise awareness about the vital need and value of court based support services for victims´ well-being as well as their ability to participate in the criminal justice hearing and provide their best quality evidence, which in turn will ensure that the courts receive the best basis for their verdict and contribute to a more safe and fair justice system for all. Through the COVIS project, we have had a unique and very timely opportunity to identify current availability, set-up and best practices for delivering court based support services across Europe. Although some States already have a right to support for victims in connection with trials, others do not. The new right provides a vital opportunity to strengthen the minimum standard and ensure that all victims throughout the EU have the right to information and emotional support in connection with criminal trials, which will secure their well-being, minimise risk of secondary victimisation while ensuring a safer and more fair criminal justice system for all. We’ll be working on creative ways to incorporate this new article into our COVIS advocacy activities moving forward. 

Marina Kazakova, VSE: Thank you, Frida, for sharing this exciting development and your insights. It’s clear that your organisation’s efforts have made a significant impact, and this new right is a testament to your dedication to supporting victims of crime. 

Frida Wheldon, Victim Support Sweden: Thank you so much for having me, and thank you to everyone who has been part of this journey. Together, we’re making a real difference in the lives of victims, and there’s more work to be done. 

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