Victims' protection in criminal proceedings is one of the judicial reform priorities

Nov 28, 2012

PHOTO: Dragan Matić/Cropix

Victim and witness protection in criminal proceedings is the topic of the regional conference which is taking place on November 28-29 in Zagreb, organized by Ministry of justice and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Croatia. On this occasion the representatives of Ministries of justice from seven countries* of the Eastern Europe have signed a Joint Statement supporting the implementation of the new European Union directive for minimum standards of victims' rights, which was put into effect on November 14th, 2012. One of the prerequisites is to widen the access to pro bono services for victim and witness support in criminal proceedings. Croatian President Ivo Josipović opened the conference.

Last year the Council of Europe has pointed out Croatian experience in establishing a Victim and Witness support office with the County courts in Osijek, Vukovar, Zadar, Zagreb, Rijeka, Sisak and Split, as the successful example which should be passed along to all courts in Croatia, and serve as a role-model for other South-east European countries.

"In their zeal to put criminals behind bars, many criminal justice systems tend to forget about the victims, or to treat them merely as tools to deliver the testimony needed to secure a conviction" – warned Louisa Vinton, UNDP Resident Representative in Croatia. UN and EU frameworks stipulate that victims' rights are respected; that they receive protection and support; and that they have access to justice and compensation. "No witness, no justice": this was the slogan of the first awareness-raising campaign for Croatian witness support offices. But without respect for the rights of victims, there are no witnesses."

Rare are the cases when judicial and police officials introduce protection measures for victims during the legal proceeding, hence leaving them unprotected and within reach of the perpetrators. As the officials of the Victim Support Office confirm, many Croatian citizens still fear to step forward as witnesses, fearing the contact with the perpetrators they might face in the Court hallways.

"Victims role is the most vulnerable in the entire criminal proceeding. Placing the victim in the focus point of criminal law empowers the judicial system as well „- emphasized Minister of justice, Orsat Miljenić [video message] adding "The goal is not only to give the victim the compensation through perpetrator's prosecution, but with support to ease the physical, psychological and emotional effects of what had happened. Many NGOs are assisting us in those efforts. We have established a good system and are doing everything to further improve it. We shall establish a toll free phone line intended for the victims who do not reside in one of the seven counties which have support offices, as well as for those who wish to remain anonymous.''

''Placing the interest of victim's protection in a criminal proceeding in the first place, we witness some serious changes in social values'' said President, Ivo Josipović [video message]. ''For centuries the legal proceeding has been thought of as an instrument of state protection. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century a certain correction has been made in that system and the emphasis was put on human rights of the accused, only now to acknowledge the victim. Justice does not only mean to punish the perpetrator, but to take care of the consequences of the criminal actions, particularly to prevent further victimization of the victims.''

„Every year 75 million EU citizens fall victim to a crime" – commented Head of EU Delegation to Croatia, Ambassador Paul Vandoren. „Victims' protection is assuming a larger role in the EU accession process as demonstrates the new EU Directive on minimum standards for protecting victims' rights. It is time to strongly include victims, and not only perpetrators, among the main concerns of criminal justice. Our goal is put the victims first."

Establishment of the Support office in Croatia was initiated by UNDP, in cooperation with Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court of Croatia in 2008 [Branko Hrvatin, President of the Supreme Court, video message]. In a little over 4 years, the offices have provided support and counseling for over 12,000 victims, which resulted in larger turnout of the witnesses in legal proceedings, and lead to faster dispute settlement.

Even though the office officials don't provide legal or psychological counseling, they can advise the witnesses to other institutions and organizations which can provide professional help. The offices have 14 full time staff members which rely on the help of educated volunteers, mostly law students, approximately 200 of them. The system, which at the beginning was intended for especially difficult criminal proceedings of war crimes, today ir provides support to victims in all criminal proceedings, particularly in cases of family and sexual violence, which amount to 22 percent of all cases.

On the first day of the conference, EU standards and UN standards in witness protection and empowerment were introduced. Diverse mechanisms of support which countries use while forming the support system were highlighted, also introducing the Swedish, Scottish and Dutch models of victims and witness support. Second day of the conference shall deal with the needs of the vulnerable victim groups – particularly of children and women- and examples of how the judicial system can respond to such needs. The closing panel discussion was meant to further discuss the question of why the victim and witness support is the priority of judicial reform.

*Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR of Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey and Ukraine.