When people become victims of crime, through no fault of their own, they are entitled to proper support.
Providing that support is the objective of the Scottish Government's forthcoming Victims and Witnesses Bill.
In addition to a range of welcome measures to improve case management so as to take better account of the needs and feelings of witnesses and victims, the legislation tackles the more controversial subject of "making offenders pay".
Some victims are already eligible for compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, paid out of general taxation, or from Compensation Orders, imposed on some offenders at the time of sentence. But this bill would introduce a "victims' surcharge", a payment added to any court fine. It would feed into a pot used mainly to compensate the victims of more serious crimes.
This would considerably enhance the modest fund managed by Victim Support Scotland (VSS) to aid victims who find themselves in extenuating circumstances as a result of the crime committed against them. Predictably, most organisations consulted on the idea were enthusiastic.
However, the victims' surcharge is more complicated than it appears. Several questions need to be answered. Is it practical? Is it logical and fair? What will it achieve?
Given the problems experienced in collecting on compensation orders, there are issues about the administration and viability of such surcharges. That applies particularly when the offender's household is already living on breadline benefits. And if collection of the surcharge is prioritised, is it likely to cut revenue from fines. And what happens if offenders fail to pay? Could they end up in jail for what began as a minor offence?
As regards justice and logic, there is little doubt that victims deserve more support but there is an argument for that coming from the taxpayer. In fact, when these charges were introduced in England and Wales, angry magistrates accused the Government of turning them into "tax collectors". Is it fair to charge a flat rate, regardless of either the seriousness of the offence or the offender's ability to pay? Also, a surcharge imposed only on those receiving fines lacks logic.
As David Sinclair of VSS observes, prisoners have the opportunity to earn income in prison. As it is the victims of the most serious crimes – those attracting custodial sentences – who are most likely to need help, why restrict the scheme to those receiving fines? In fact, those convicted of minor speeding offences or for possession of a small quantity of drugs for personal use could argue that their crimes are victimless. Why should they pay for a crime they did not commit?
Surcharges have been used south of the Border for six years. It would make sense to look at how they have worked there and whether there have been any unforeseen consequences, such as magistrates giving more conditional discharges, to avoid imposing the surcharge on impecunious offenders.
Finally, it is important to ask what surcharges will achieve, beyond greater availability of compensation to victims. It is important not to lose sight of the long-term aim of reducing offending. If surcharges are introduced, should some of the proceeds be directed to restorative justice, for example? After all, ultimately the only way of producing fewer victims is to reduce the number of offenders.
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