Friday, September 2, 2011

Judge wants bench to 'reach out to victims'

Pia Akerman | The Australian | 1 September 2011

VICTORIA'S highest judge has admitted a gulf exists between the judiciary and victims of crime, proposing significant sentencing reforms to give victims and juries greater confidence in the legal system.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren yesterday suggested judges should sit down with victims and their families after sentencing a criminal and explain in detail the reasons for the punishment.

"It is very frustrating for victims and their families where they have a sense of being a bystander when they go to court," she said. "There is a disconnection between us, and you wish to be just, but at the same time you are a compassionate human being and you would like to reach out."

In a move welcomed by victim support groups, she also floated trialling a US process where juries sit in on plea hearings and give recommendations to the judge on an appropriate sentence.

"The judge is the one in the middle who has to find a balance and deliver justice, but in terms of victims we still do not do enough," Chief Justice Warren said. "They do feel separated, alienated from the process.

"I can't help but wonder, if we sat down as judges and even just listened to the family after it was over, it might help."

A report released yesterday by the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council found that only 28 per cent of 1200 people surveyed felt satisfied with court decisions, while 63 per cent thought judges were out of touch with what ordinary people thought.

Just over half were confident judges imposed appropriate sentences most of the time, and 59 per cent felt confident in the courts and legal system more generally.

Victims of crime had less confidence in the system than people who had not been victims.

The Law Institute of Victoria welcomed Chief Justice Warren's ideas, as did Crime Victims Support Association president Noel McNamara.

But prominent criminal barrister Peter Faris QC said the plans were "entirely misconceived".

"This is the criminal justice system, not a victims' counselling centre," he said. "It's the job of judges not to counsel the victims, it's the job of judges to sentence and to give their reasons to the community. That's where they're falling down . . . Victims are never going to be happy with sentences because they've suffered terrible losses and terrible traumas."

Chief Justice Warren told The Australian her ideas remained "experimental" and needed to be "thought through". "There are no changes planned for juries at this time. Any changes may need legislation, but it is premature to consider that," she said.

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