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The legal system and the victims of crime

01 January 2016


From the Revd Dr David Wheeler

Sir, — It is impossible not to have enormous sympathy for Dr Julie Macfarlane (Comment, 11 December) in her struggle with the Church, its insurers, and the insurers’ lawyers. Part of the problem is, perhaps, that the Church is not sufficiently different from the society we live in: how far do we follow what we consider to be ethical rather than what is the norm for our society? But another part of the problem is surely our legal system, which is such a significant part of our working out of rights and wrongs in our society.

The legal system is designed to protect the public and to punish the offender; victims of crime are not central in criminal-justice situations, and the legal process does not, in general, contribute to improving their well-being.

I work in another area where victims are massively hurt: with families of those who have been murdered. The hurt caused by the criminal-justice system is huge: a survey by Support after Murder and Manslaughter for the Government-appointed Victims’ Commissioner found that half found it one of the hardest areas to deal with (equal to the effect on health, whereas just a quarter found financial effect worse; and the average cost to a family, following a murder, including loss of wages, is well over £100,000).

The effects of our justice system on such families begin with the declaring the body of the dead person the property of the coroner (multiple post-mortems can be carried out, and funerals can be held up for months, even years, to give the offender the right to a “fair trial”), and proceed through the potential trauma of a trial to the release of the offender back into the community (in some cases, close to members of the family of the dead person).

Although there have been moves to help victims in the past decades, our justice system is designed around the offender. It is not designed to bring healing to victims, be it of murder or of sexual offences.

I wonder what a legal system that had as its first priority helping to heal victims would look like? And I wonder which direction Jesus would have us go in?

In the Church, we have chaplains for offenders, but no help beyond the parish priest for the likes of Dr Macfarlane and other victims. We even have a Week of Prayer for Prisoners, during which victims are remembered on the fourth day. Shouldn’t we be praying for victims such as Dr Macfarlane before we pray for their offenders?

22 Glamis Avenue
Bournemouth BH10 6DP

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