Criminal justice system professionals

When people witness or experience a crime and if they choose to report it, they meet professionals working in the criminal justice system of the country where the crime was committed. Most frequently, victims will interact with police officers, but may also have contact with judges, prosecutors, magistrates, court staff, etc.

Those working in the criminal justice system are aware that victims of crime have rights, which are guaranteed both by national and EU-wide legislation, such as the Victims’ Rights Directive 2012/29/EU[1]. However, outwith these legal rights, professionals should be aware of other factors that can significantly affect victims’ experience with the criminal justice system and its impact on their future. It is not uncommon that, in practice, victims’ rights are not upheld due to lack of knowledge or resources on the part of those assisting the victims[2].

This page aims to provide professionals with useful information and practical advice on how to ensure victims of crime are treated appropriately.

Right to information

In line with the Victims’ Rights Directive, victims of crime are entitled to receive information on their rights during their first contact with a competent authority, most frequently the police, when reporting a crime. Article 4 of the Directive states that victims should receive the following information during or shortly after their first interaction with a competent authority:

  • The type of support they can obtain and from whom, including, where relevant, basic information about access to medical support, any specialist support, including psychological support, and alternative accommodation
  • The procedures for making complaints with regard to a criminal offence and their role in connection with such procedures
  • How and under what conditions they can obtain protection, including protection measures
  • How and under what conditions they can access legal advice, legal aid and any other advice
  • How and under what conditions they can access compensation
  • How and under what conditions they are entitled to interpretation and translation
  • If they are resident in a Member State other than that where the criminal offence was committed, any special measures, procedures or arrangements, which are available to protect their interests in the Member State where the first contact with the competent authority is made
  • The available procedures for making complaints where their rights are not respected by the competent authority operating within the context of criminal proceedings
  • The contact details for news about their case
  • The available restorative justice services
  • How and under what conditions expenses incurred as a result of their participation in the criminal proceedings can be reimbursed.

There are many ways in which the aforementioned information can be provided, from leaflets and brochures to videos and websites and, even, by oral communication. However, it is important to remember that a victim may be unable to fully assimilate the information during their first contact with the police, as they may be distressed or simply overwhelmed by a large amount of information. Victims must be able to re-examine the information they receive, through printed materials or links to online resources.

Victims have specific rights regarding information about their case: particularly information on the final judgement after a trial as well as general information on the proceedings and the status of their case.

It should be highlighted that victims must receive information on how and why they may be referred to another professional, for example a victim support worker or a healthcare provider.

Referral

The competent authority to which a victim reports a crime – most frequently the police – is in the best position to refer the victim to a victim support organisation or other specialised service they may need, referrals should be made to organisations that are familiar to the competent authority.

However, it is not be enough to simply offer a victim a leaflet or suggest an organisation – a follow up call either to the victim or the support service would be beneficial.  Some countries have implemented an automatic referral system, the victim is actively referred to a victim support organisation on reporting  a crime to the police, unless they opt out. In many countries, victim support services are installed on the same premises as the police, allowing for quick and efficient referral procedures.

Respectful treatment

A fundamental right of victims of crime is the right to respectful treatment. Those who have just experienced a traumatising event may be in distress, so it is important that anyone dealing with a victim remains calm, patient, respectful, and makes the individual feel welcome and safe. Some groups of victims, such as children or victims of sexual violence or terrorism, will need special attention and support. You can make the victim feel more comfortable by treating them with respect:

  • Recognise the person as a victim. It is important to legitimise the experience of the individual, who came forward to report a crime and provide them with recognition of that experience.
  • Use non-judgmental language. Non-judgemental communication starts by accepting that we impose stereotypes to certain behaviours, groups of people and certain situations. We can then acknowledge that non-judgmental communication is not a ‘gift’ or ‘characteristic’, but a skill we can be trained to use, a way of communication to be conscientiously adapted when speaking to victims of crime.
  • Always stay professional. Victims may experience a whole host of emotions and display a variety of behaviours in reaction to a crime; anger, confusion, dissociation, memory loss, etc. From the outside, this behaviour can appear to be inappropriate, rude and even aggressive. However, these are all common psychological reactions to being a victim of crime and coping with trauma.

To truly treat victims respectfully, we must be familiar with the common characteristics and needs of victims of crime and their realities, and with the specific needs of certain types of victim. This awareness is part of a broader strategy called the victim-centred approach, which can be achieved through appropriate training for police officers, judges, prosecutors, and other criminal justice system professionals.

The victim-centred approach is defined as the systematic focus on the needs and concerns of a victim to ensure the compassionate and sensitive delivery of services in a non-judgmental manner. In a victim-centred approach, the victim’s wishes, safety, and well-being take priority in all matters and procedures.

PROTASIS is an EU project dedicated to strengthening the skills of law enforcement professionals in the successful and respectful interaction with victims of crime. The main objective of PROTASIS is to contribute to the development of a victim-friendly environment during a victim’s contact with the police, by ensuring respectful and sensitive treatment through the improvement and strengthening of police officers’ communication skills and knowledge on victim interaction.

A manual entitled “Towards a victim-centred police response” was produced as a result of the PROTASIS project. A training program, and its material, were trialled in Italy, Portugal, and Greece, with more than 200 police officers completing 20 hours of training seminars and workshops. On completion of the pilot study, an evaluation and impact assessment was conducted by the IARS International Institute, an independent external organisation. The scientific evaluation of the training program reviewed its impact on the everyday working life of the police officers. The findings and conclusions further enhanced the training program and its material. The training manual can be accessed here: https://protasis-project.eu/protasis-training-manual/

There are numerous training activities focused on specific groups of victims. For instance, ILGA-Europe, an advocacy group promoting LGBT+ rights, has created a toolkit for training police officers on tackling LGBTI-phobic hate crime. The toolkit can be accessed here: https://www.ilga-europe.org/sites/default/files/Attachments/toolkit_lgbtiphobic_crimes.pdf

Similarly, a training manual on a professional police response to hate crime against LGBTI persons has been published the Council of Europe. This manual is designed for police trainers, investigators, managers, hate crime officers and frontline police officers working in countries across the Council of Europe region to develop essential skills to identify and investigate hate crimes against LGBTI persons and can be accessed here: https://edoc.coe.int/en/lgbt/7405-policing-hate-crime-against-lgbti-persons-training-for-a-professional-police-response.html

Secondary victimisation

Secondary victimisation occurs when a victim suffers further harm after a crime because of the way they are dealt with by institutions and other individuals. Secondary victimisation may be caused, for instance, by a victim being repeatedly in the presence of the perpetrator, repeated interrogation over the same facts, the use of inappropriate language or insensitive comments by those who meet the victim.[3] The Victims’ Rights Directive states that all victims of crime should be protected from secondary or repeat victimisation.

Criminal justice system professionals can ensure secondary victimisation is avoided by adjusting certain procedures. Specifically, procedures should be in place to ensure a victim only tells their story once, and only answers a set of questions once; for example, a victim’s testimony could be audio- or video-recorded. The same applies to unnecessary repeat medical examinations, which are sometimes expected by criminal justice system professionals.

If an individual is a victim of a recurring crime, such as in cases of domestic or gender-based violence, police officers can familiarise themselves with the case by reading the file rather than questioning the victim every time they report the crime. EUCPN (European Crime Prevention Network) has published a toolbox on preventing secondary victimisation, which can be found here: https://eucpn.org/document/toolbox-7-preventing-secondary-victimization-policies-practices. This toolbox includes real-life examples from various EU Member States, which have implemented measures that help police officers avoid the secondary victimisation of victims.

Secondary or repeat victimisation can also occur because of unwanted contact between a victim and an offender. Article 19 of the Victims’ Rights Directive states that victims have a right to avoid contact with their offender and Member States must enable the avoidance of contact between victims and their family members, where necessary, and the offender within premises where criminal proceedings are conducted, unless the criminal proceedings require such contact. This can be achieved through separate entrances and waiting areas in court buildings and police stations, for instance.