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Victim’s Rights Bill – second reading

Victim’s Rights Bill – second reading

I move that the House take note of the report of the Justice and Electoral committee on the Victims Rights Bill.

This Bill was introduced under the previous National Government. It aimed to improve the treatment of victims of crime, by introducing new measures to strengthen their rights and the services available to them.

In opposition, I did not consider that the then Government had gone far enough to address the deficiencies in the 1987 legislation. When I became the Minister of Justice, therefore, I released a Supplementary Order Paper which was forwarded to the Select Committee to consider along with the Bill. It proposed amendments to most of the Bill to give it more teeth.

The SOP responded to public concern, as reflected in the 1999 referendum, that the rights and needs of victims have received insufficient attention in the criminal justice system:

It proposed amendments to recast most of the vague “principles” in the Bill as explicit rights, with corresponding mandatory obligations upon specific Government agencies to uphold those rights.

It required that victims be properly informed of progress in the case against the offender

It proposed to enable victims of more serious offences to have input into decisions about whether the offender should be released on bail.

It proposed extending the categories of victims who are entitled to join a notification register and therefore to be automatically informed about matters such as the offender’s release or escape from custody, hearings before the Parole Board and discharge from a psychiatric hospital.

It proposed to enable those victims to make submissions to the Parole Board, with provisions to that effect now having been incorporated into the new Parole Act.

I commend the Select Committee for the detailed attention it paid to the Bill and SOP. The Committee has recommended a large number of amendments, and I am confident that most of the recommended changes will significantly enhance the Bill’s workability and effectiveness.

One of the most significant changes relates to the definition of victim. The Committee has recommended, for the purposes of the provisions of the Bill which create enforceable rights, that the definition of victim should be narrowed to include only: complainants persons who suffer physical injury or loss of or damage to property members of the immediate family where death, incapacity or a state of continuing unconsciousness results from the offence.

This is an improvement on the definition in the Bill as introduced, which was too wide. However, it has the effect of omitting parents of children against whom an offence is committed. That is clearly unsatisfactory. I have therefore released an SOP for consideration by the Committee of the Whole House making it clear that parents of children who are offended against will have rights as victims under the Bill.

Where a person affected by an offence is not a victim as defined, agencies should still take into account, and endeavour to meet, their needs. The Select Committee has therefore recommended inserting a provision to make it clear that agencies can provide services or information to people other than victims, and that prosecutors may allow persons other than victims to make a victim impact statement, with the leave of the Judge.

The Select Committee has recommended narrowing the grounds upon which information in a victim impact statement can be withheld from an offender. The original Bill allowed the Court to withhold a statement in order to protect the victim’s physical safety, emotional welfare and privacy. The Committee has recommended limiting the grounds to instances where it is necessary to protect the victim’s physical safety or security. It has also recommended the addition of a new clause, providing that a judicial officer must not take into account any withheld parts of a victim impact statement in determining the appropriate sentence. This balances the rights of accused to hear and respond to allegations against them and the rights of victims to be able to provide information to the Court without fear of being further victimised or traumatised. It will ensure that a sentence is not imposed on the basis of information which an offender has not seen and has not had the opportunity to challenge.

The original Bill also provided that a victim’s address should not be disclosed in Court unless disclosure would be contrary to the interests of justice. The Select Committee has recommended that the presumption in this Clause be reversed, so that address information would be withheld only when a specific direction was made to suppress the information.

However, I take the view, as did the Law Commission in its review of the law of evidence, that information about the address of the victim is usually irrelevant to the proceedings, and that there is generally no need for it to be disclosed in open court. The SOP therefore proposes reverting to the original presumption against disclosure. Under my proposal, the address of a victim will only be given in evidence or provided in court with the permission of the judge and the judge may only grant permission if satisfied that the information is directly relevant to the case and that its evidential value outweighs any likely prejudice or harm to the victim.

Part 3 of the Bill provides appropriate victims with rights of notification of bail hearings, the release or escape of their offender, and hearings relating to parole, home detention or conditions on final release. It also provides for those victims to contribute to such hearings. The Select Committee has recommended extending notification to include prosecutions for breach of parole, applications for recall to prison and the outcomes of those prosecutions and applications. This will enable victims, if they wish, to be kept informed about an offender’s custodial status until the end of their prison sentence.

The Select Committee has also recommended adding a new clause which will enable the Minister of Immigration, when considering a proposal to deport an offender, or the Deportation Review Tribunal, when considering an appeal against a deportation order, to contact a victim whose details are on the Victim Notification Register. The aim of this clause is to give the victims a voice in the deportation process.

Four clauses were voted down during the final deliberations of the Select Committee. Three of these – Clauses 21, 29 and 51 – are essential to the workability of the legislation as a whole. The fourth – Clause 9 – is designed to promote restorative justice processes and encourages Judges and those acting on behalf of the Crown to encourage meetings between victim and offender where a meeting may resolve issues relating to the offence and where resources are available for that purpose. I consider that a clause along these lines would be a desirable addition to the Bill. I therefore intend to reinsert all four “lost” clauses, with minor modifications, by SOP.

In recognition of our new partnership with United, I have recently held discussions with members of their party about how we can all ensure that the important rights and principles to be enshrined in this legislation can be implemented to full effect.

The emphasis now for us all lies in making sure these rights are upheld and that services, programmes and remedies for victims are always available to victims of crime. United Future New Zealand and the Labour-Progressive Coalition has now agreed to form a parliamentary committee to monitor the implementation of the Act and to review the current services and the delivery of those services to victims. We will be welcoming input from Victim Support, the key organisation responsible for the delivery of services to victims in New Zealand.

I welcome this committee and the initiative and commitment United Future has shown to ensuring the rights of victims, as set out in this Bill, are upheld.

This Bill, with the amendments recommended by the Select Committee, is a vital component of the Government’s response to public concerns about the criminal justice system clearly demonstrated by the response to the referendum at the 1999 general election. It will result in significant improvements to the way in which criminal justice agencies identify and respond to the needs of victims and it will give them a greater range of opportunities to participate in the process and to have their voices heard.

I commend the Bill to the House.

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