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Safe Justice: On the urgency for privacy for victims

By March 4, 2023April 11th, 2023News, News from members, Top Story

Ahead of the European Day for Victims of Crime, and considering the publication of the Safe Justice discussion paper, Victim Support Europe launched a call for stories and testimonials from individuals who participated in a journey towards justice and are willing to share their positive experiences as well as the barriers and challenges they faced when dealing with the justice system.

Victim Support Netherlands kindly shared the below testimony.

  On a daily basis, Slachtofferhulp Nederland sees the major importance of a well-functioning legal system for victims. That is why we are pleased to join Victim Support Europe’s (VSE) Safe Justice Project. In this post, we will briefly outline the urgency for privacy for victims, refer to case law and share an inspiring example.

Recently, a very drastic sexual abuse case came to light in North Brabant, a province in the Netherlands. The victims of the sexual abuse case, in which a female nanny abused several young girls, feared their privacy was being violated.

And rightly so, because this was a very serious, large-scale case that has received a lot of media attention and kept a lot of people busy since the press release. The case contained quite a few gruesome details – not the kind of case that comes about with great regularity.

For victims, their privacy was paramount and they did not and do not want their identity to be widely known. After all, they were children. No parents of victims want to be hunted in an attempt to find out who the victims are. It is important to avoid them being accosted in supermarkets by acquaintances who suddenly say “how terrible what happened to you”.

Despite this major concern in terms of privacy, the hearing did not take place behind closed doors. Unfortunately, the importance of publicity was deemed greater.


Case law

However, there is enough case law from the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights) to ensure that these types of cases can indeed be heard behind closed doors. Since the Mraovic v. Croatia (Application no. 30373/13  14 May 2020) case of the ECHR, it should be easier to hold session behind closed doors. In its ruling, the court said:

“The Court found it important to emphasize that intimate details from a rape victim’s life could be disclosed at any stage of a criminal trial against the alleged perpetrator and not only during cross-examination of the victim. Consequently, since the present case concerned the need to protect the victim’s integrity and dignity, as well as protect her from further embarrassment and stigmatization, in the Court’s view, closing only part of the proceedings would not have sufficed to protect her rights in the particular circumstances of the present case.”

Despite the possibilities of hearings being held behind closed doors, the importance of publicity often outweighs this. Thus, to the dismay of sexual abuse victims, their names and personal experiences still too often end up being made public as soon as the hearing on their case begins. This is harmful, particularly when the victims are minors.

Best practice

Fortunately, there are other ways to ensure victims’ privacy.

(Former) Legal advisor to Slachtofferhulp Nederland, Laurens Kock, has assisted several victims in major sexual abuse cases, including the Alem sexual abuse case. In this case, a man had committed fornication with seven girls and possessed child pornography photos of 23 girls. Kock represented 12 victims at trial.

  Kock: Everyone reported by name. One victim was afraid that her name would be spoken throughout the village – Alem has six hundred residents. This also proved to be the case for other victims and their parents.

For Kock, these signs were reason to take immediate action.

  Kock: These are very young children with their whole lives ahead of them. Some were not yet aware of the abuse. It is important for parents to see for themselves how best to discuss this with their children. You don’t want your child, or a sibling, to be address in the supermarket by someone saying: “Oh, how awful for you”. It doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else. It’s very important to protect the privacy of these victims.


Numbers, not names

Kock asked the court to refer to the victims not by name but by number.

  Kock:  This was agreed, and handled very well. The prosecutor made a list in which the victims’ names were replaced with numbers. The president of the court began the hearing with a good explanation about this: “It’s not because we see you as numbers, but to protect your privacy.” Very personal things come up in such sessions; children who experience concentration problems, have difficulty trusting others and who need psychological help. I need to share this with the judge, because it has an effect on damages. However, not all court hearing visitors keep these things to themselves, you know how these things are: “Gee, I heard Pete is cutting himself.” By the way, that was not a factor in this case. By calling victims by number, other people do not know who they are.


Behind closed doors

To Kock’s relief, the defendant’s lawyer did a good job of keeping the agreements of anonymity and no one had a slip of the tongue. He also asked the court to keep part of the hearing behind closed doors.

  Kock: Very personal things come up at such hearings. By calling victims by number, other people do not know who they are.

Anonymisation at hearings

This was decided upon for speaking rights and for the discussion of requests for damages. Each parent and/or victim was given a separate opportunity, behind closed doors, to explain what effect the incident had had on them.

  Kock: Otherwise, victims would still become known, with their whole story. Besides: if the media is following, you might not say everything that you would like to say.


Compliments to the prosecution

The prosecutor’s office also handled the privacy in the Alem case particularly well.

  Kock: When we requested the criminal files for our 12 clients, we found that the prosecution had anonymised everything, including in the interrogation reports. So the file on Marietje, for example, only contained information about what the accused stated about her.

  Other names that came up were rendered illegible. This involved a lot of work for the prosecution, because you have to go through it on a victim-by-victim basis. I have nothing but compliments for them. Victim privacy in this case fortunately worked very well.


Dealings essential

Anonymity of victims in court is not a given. However, Kock notes that it is getting easier to get requests for this accepted.

  Kock: I do have to argue as much and always point to the European regulations that require preventing the identity of underage victims from becoming known.

But it is absolutely worth it.

  Kock: You see with victims that the treatment and how the hearing goes is often more important than whether someone gets three or five years in prison.

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