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Saturday, 16 March 2013

A victim's place

Shepherd & Anor v Kell & Anor [2013] VSC 24 was an application under s 85B of the Sentencing Act 1991 for a compensation order against two men convicted of manslaughter. The application was made by the victim's parents, who are recognised as victims of the crime themselves by the definition provided at s 3 of the Act:

victim, in relation to an offence, means a person who, or body that, has suffered injury, loss or damage (including grief, distress, trauma or other significant adverse effect) as a direct result of the offence, whether or not that injury, loss or damage was reasonably foreseeable by the offender;

In granting the application, Lasry J drew upon the affidavits of the victims to make the following observations [at 16], which should give everyone connected with the justice system pause for thought:

It is important for me to note that the experience of Mr and Mrs Shepherd in the justice system has not been satisfactory. In his victim impact statement Mr Shepherd said:

I felt disappointed in the justice system and how it caters for people like Maureen and I and the situation we found ourselves in. I think there should be a little room next to the court with one way glass where you can sit and listen to the proceedings. A place where you can react with tears and anger and overwhelming grief if you have to when you hear the evidence presented. Instead, there I was in the court room having to be a robot again. I was told not to show any reaction to who was there and what I heard. I was so anxious about doing the right thing I didn’t want to upset the proceedings with any emotional outburst which I really felt like showing. I felt like screaming out every time the defence questioned a witness challenging the truth. Having to keep all my emotions inside has taken its toll on me.

Observations like this should be acknowledged by those of us in the criminal justice system and governments and courts should consider the way in which the experience of people such as Mr and Mrs Shepherd can be made more comfortable than it is at the moment.

The costs involved in installing private galleries and one-way glass in courtrooms would be prohibitive. But reading of this man's experience did cause me to wonder why better use isn't made of remote witness facilities already in existence at every Victorian court. It wouldn't be possible for the facilities to be used for this purpose when they are required for a witness giving evidence in a trial, but there are many more occasions during trials and sentencing hearings when a victim and their loved ones could watch proceedings without having to maintain the unnatural, stoic demeanour that their presence in the body of the court demands.

The cost would be minimal. The signal would be transmitted one-way rather than both ways. And it could benefit the court and the administration of justice, as it might minimise the potential for disruption to proceedings caused by someone in the gallery becoming distressed or disruptive, or needing to absent themselves from the hearing urgently. Not every victim would use it, but no doubt some would.

Perhaps this already does happen and I'm just not aware of it. (Someone post a comment about it, if that's the case.)

2 comments:

Jadzia said...

It has happened on rare occasions, such as when there were too many interested parties to fit in a courtroom. It was employed recently in a culpable driving sentence.

However, the facilities are very limited. The County Court has three remote rooms, with capacity for a handful of people each, and the Magistrates' Court has about the same. The OPP has a few rooms, as does the Child Witness Service.

The problem is firstly that these rooms are constantly tied up with witnesses giving evidence in trials (keep in mind that almost every child witness and sex offence complainant will give evidence remotely, plus witnesses interstate and overseas, plus at committals some professionals from VIFM and the like).

Secondly, the courts only have a few codecs available - ie. they can only have a few links at one time. Early in the mornings, they are mostly tied up in listings courts for people appearing from prison and regional courts. From 10:30, they are used for people giving evidence remotely in the numerous trials going on at any one time.

It's less of a problem for the Supreme Court, which has virtually no sex offence matters and minimal listings hearings, but it's near impossible at the County Court (which hears the majority of pleas) or the Magistrates' Court.

Life will be so much easier when the courts finally move to Skype-like links as opposed to the old-fashioned (and incredibly expensive) links used now.

Dr Manhattan said...

Good points, Jadzia.

That's very useful information to know. And the obstacles that you describe sound difficult to untangle - after all, the facilities weren't designed to be used for the purpose of observing proceedings.

Thanks for your input.