The EU steps up its effort to protect victims of crime
According to the European Commission, up to 15% of the European Union’s population may be victims of crime within EU territory every year, with consequences not only for them but for their family members as well.
One of the most interesting EU legislative proposals presented in recent times is the one for a Directive to establish minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. The text enhances the foundations originally provided by Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA, which is to be repealed. The objective is to ensure that all victims of crime receive appropriate protection and support, are able to take part in criminal proceedings and are recognised and treated in a respectful, sensitive and professional manner across the EU, when in contact with any public authority, victim support or restorative justice service.
Focusing on the rights of the victim
One of the main innovative elements of this positive proposal is that it presents itself as a proper list or catalogue of the rights of victims of crime. These rights span from the provision of information and support (e.g. access to free of charge, confidential victim support services); to participation in criminal proceedings (e.g. right to be heard, right to legal aid); up to the rights connected with victims’ protection (e.g. protection from retaliation, intimidation, repeat or further victimisation; protection of privacy). In this sense, the proposal goes beyond the more tentative indications of the Framework Decision.
The clarity with which the text affirms that family members of the victims are fully protected by it and that they are to be considered as indirect victims of the crimes, in the particular case of his/her death, should be highly appreciated. Again, the old Framework Decision proved somehow less courageous in this regard.
A third element that increases the value of the Commission’s proposal is the much greater attention devoted to children. The Directive is to be applied by giving primary consideration to the child’s best interests (Recital 20) and children are included in the list of categories which are automatically identified as vulnerable for the purposes of the text (Article 18). Moreover, child victims are granted specific guarantees during criminal proceedings (Article 22). The similarly attentive approach now provided to persons with disabilities deserves an equal level of appreciation.
Possible improvements and corrections
Some elements of the proposal, while not detracting from the value of the text, could have been thought through more carefully. For instance, the definition of ‘family members’, also refers to non-marital cohabitations and registered partnerships. The mention of institutions that are not recognised in a large number of Member States do not seem to be necessary in the context of a Directive. A reference to the definitions identified in national law, in accordance with the relevant family law systems, would have been sufficient. Secondly, according to Recital 18, the individual assessment of the vulnerability of a victim should take into particular account age, gender and gender identity, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, state of health, disability, communication difficulties, relationship to or dependence on the suspected or accused person, previous experience of crime, the type or nature of the crime such as organised crime, terrorism, or bias crimes. Greater flexibility would have been preferable and the listing suffers from debatable terminology. The expression ‘bias crimes’ is open to interpretation, and could include questionably construed criminal offences; the ideological term ‘gender’ does not respect the formulation of the Treaties and of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, where reference is always made to the two sexes; one could also question whether some of the more undefined elements mentioned are sufficient to justify a special treatment.
A question of human dignity
The proposal of the European Commission is to be saluted as a strong and positive signal of acknowledgment of the need to protect the human dignity of victims of crime without any hesitation. A text aimed at this goal should be valued, in the context of European societies and judiciary systems that quite often seem to show an excessive degree of protectiveness towards the position of law offenders, neglecting those who fall victim to their actions. The European Parliament and the Council, co-legislators in this case, have good material to work on in this regard and will hopefully take the opportunity to speedily legislate on even more solid guarantees for victims of crime.