Baroness Newlove, Victims’ Commissioner
James Watson, London LPC student 2016-2017, reports on a talk by Baroness Newlove, Victims’ Commissioner. She visited BPP’s Holborn campus on 18 October 2016 and spoke about the importance of remembering the victims during criminal legal procedures.
On Tuesday the 18th of October, BPP’s Holborn campus was graced with the presence of Helen Newlove, Baroness Newlove.
For those who do not know her story, it began, as these stories often do, on a Summer’s night in August 2007. Baroness Newlove’s husband, Garry, was assaulted by a gang of youths outside the family home in Cheshire. The assault, which was witnessed by his entire family, including his three young daughters, resulted in fatal internal injuries, and he lost his life in hospital two days later. He had confronted the youths because it was suspected that they were vandalising his wife’s car.
But Baroness Newlove wasn’t in BPP to talk in detail about her case, nor was she here to discuss the underage drinking and hooliganism that had resulted in her husband’s tragic death. No, she was here to talk about the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system, and what we as lawyers, be it solicitors or barristers, can do to improve the lives and experiences of victims of violent crimes as they not only come to terms with the horror of what they’ve experienced, but the traumatic process of reliving those events as they navigate the notoriously adversarial, complicated and, at times, cold and emotionless legal process that is used to put the defendants accused of those crimes on trial. It is not hot-off-the-press knowledge that the legal system as a whole could benefit from a massive rethink about how they approach victims in the court. And while these changes are largely related to procedure and the system as a whole – Baroness Newlove touched on several, such as the Victim’s Statement, compensation and simple things such as not seating the victims in the same section of the courthouse as the families of the defendants – there are many that can be done by us, the legal students.
When in full time practice, we will encounter victims wherever we go in law, including non-criminal law. It might be a victim of domestic abuse trying to divorce their abusive partner, someone who lost enormous amounts of money or was very badly injured as a result of someone else’s negligence, someone who was unfairly let go at work, or even someone who might be uprooted and forced to return to a country where they face persecution. And that is, I feel, not something we can prepare for in the largely academic confines of an SGS. As lawyers, we will need to be able to explain to them more than just the law. We have the admittedly unenviable task of explaining to them how the court system works, managing their expectations, and helping them understand what they will likely face when called for cross examination. But above all, we need to learn something that human beings are famously bad at – how to empathise with their predicament, and make them feel like they have someone fighting their corner.
How can we do that? Firstly, we can take more interest in the subject by attending more talks such as the one that Baroness Newlove gave. Second, we can actively try and push for the changes that she spoke of. I cannot speak for the BPTC, but on the LPC, the first thing I noticed on the criminal litigation was that the focus was on how to advise the defendant. There was nothing about how to interact with the victims of their crimes if we end up in the CPS, which is entirely possible. That is not to say that the entire curriculum gets it wrong – being firm with the defendants when explaining their options regarding bail is a very valuable part of the job, and another thing Baroness Newlove suggested. But there are still some things that could be included. And it’s within our power to do something about this – writing to the SRA and suggesting the benefits of including such practices in their handbooks, and in the SRA approved LPC course, is one such option. I have it on good authority that they would be more than happy to listen. And I’m willing to hazard a guess that the Bar students have a similar procedure.
I am aware of how easy it would be to preach, and for this article to come across as a rant, so I’ll finish this with something I think we can all agree on. At the end of the day, we as lawyers are working with human beings, many of whom have no experience with the legal system, and almost none of whom want it. It is better that we remember that now, in the safety of our classrooms, and keep it in our minds as we navigate our courses, rather than wait until we meet those people when we go into practice and discover how unprepared we are to handle them properly.
BPP’s Pro Bono Centre runs legal advice and education projects with the aim of improving access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.