By Holly Campion
What are they?
A victim impact statement (VIS) is a written or oral statement made as part of court proceedings. It allows the victim to speak during the sentencing phase of the trial about the implications the crime has had on their lives and can be very emotive. It can include information about the emotional, psychological, physical, and financial implications a crime has had on their lives. They may be delivered through an oral or written statement or through a live video link to the courtroom.
A victim impact statement can also be given by a co-victim, this would generally be a close relative of the deceased who can speak about how the loss of their loved one has had implications on their lives and the lives of others.
Why do we have them?
Victim Impact Statements were introduced to the criminal justice system to give the victim a voice during the court proceedings. It allows the court to hear how the crime in question affected the victim, in their own words and this is usually considered during the sentencing phase of the trial. The victim cannot provide any recommendation on the punishment they see suitable. The judge will have sentencing guidelines which align the sentence with the severity of the crime and the harm caused to the victim by the criminal actions. The VIS can therefore then give the court a clearer idea of what harm was experienced because of the offender’s actions.
What are the perceived negatives of a Victim Impact Statement?
Since their introduction there has been concerns about victim impact statements. One of the concerns that academic and criminal justice professionals have is that by delivering a VIS it can give the victim a false sense of hope and a distorted view of their role in the courtroom. Delivering a VIS also may provide more trauma by reliving the crime than providing benefits to their healing process. Whilst the judge will consider the implications of the crime they cannot be influenced by the emotions of a victim when deciding on an appropriate sentence. The judge must only consider the factual evidence. Sometimes after delivering a VIS, a victim can be left feeling disappointed by the sentence given and they may feel as though their voice was not heard. Some would argue that the emotion that comes from a VIS has no place in the courtroom and that the court is only to hear evidence in which they can make a decision on whether it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, they may argue that the VIS adds nothing to the functionality of the sentencing proceedings.
Another possible concern surrounding victim impact statements is whether they have an effect on the judges sentencing decision, resulting in an unfair outcome. During a trial, a judge would not directly hear the raw emotions that the offender is experiencing but then they may hear about the impacts the crime has had on the victim’s life whether that be psychologically, physically or financially. A VIS may provide more information than would have been previously provided to the court. A sense of worry that the judge will be unfairly bias towards the victim then comes into play. This again is where one might argue that emotions have no place in a courtroom.
What effects can a VIS have on the offender?
The offender is the one on trial in a courtroom so generally the entire courtroom proceedings focus on them. The defence will be doing everything in their power to protect the offender from severe punishment. The Victim Impact Statement is not there to benefit the offender, it is there to give the victim of crime a voice and an opportunity for their experience to be emotionally validated. Although, there is an opportunity for the offender to benefit from the statement as it allows the offender to directly hear the harm they have caused through their criminal actions. This may not sound like much, but the criminal justice system is often argued to neglect the victim, so the implications of the crime on a real person can get lost amongst the circumstantial and factual evidence constantly being provided. All this evidence creates a very technical atmosphere, whilst the VIS allows some focus on the personal and emotional side of things. If the offender has some time to reflect on the harm that they have caused, it may prove a worthwhile step towards their eventual rehabilitation. It could also encourage an offender’s desire to make amends for the harm they have caused.
What benefit do they provide to the victim?
The VIS, although daunting, can be very beneficial to the victim. Whether they be a direct victim of the crime or a co-victim. If a co-victim delivers a VIS it allows them to pay respects to their loved one while demonstrating to the court that this loss of life has had devastating implications on others, the allowance for co-victims to deliver this statement gives a voice that has otherwise been taken away. The VIS can give the court an idea of what support the victim may need going forward, whether this be monetary or psychological. Victims understandably may feel overwhelmed by the thought of reliving their pain and publicly acknowledging their pain and trauma, but it is also an empowering experience. Delivering a VIS allows for affirmation of the status of being a victim and gives the victim a recognition of the harm that was caused to them. Overall, it can be a very cathartic experience.