Victim impact statements need reform

2 December 2015

Giving a victim impact statement can be therapeutic, but the process for doing so is often confusing.

General wide shot of a courtroom. Image: iStock

The study recommends the gathering of detailed statistics regarding VIS in sentencing proceedings. Image: iStock

Crime victims and their families can be challenged by trauma, feelings of shame and fear of the court when weighing up whether to make a victim impact statement, suggests a University of Sydney study.

Yet most crime victims and their families value giving a victim impact statement (VIS) and report it is therapeutic. The study involved over 60 victims of crime and 30 victim service professionals in New South Wales between 2010 and 2011.

“Victim impact statements offer victims of crime the opportunity to reconstruct the traumatic story from their perspective, to assess the harm, make meaning of their suffering and have it validated by having their story heard in public,” said Fiona Tait, who completed the study for Masters Research in Criminology.

“Even crime victims unhappy with the sentence given to the convicted or their experience of the courts find giving a victim impact statement to be worthwhile.” 

However, fear of cross-examination, knowing the convicted person and concerns regarding personal exposure through media coverage can hinder crime victims from making a statement and affect what they choose to say, the study suggests.

“Some victims have no desire to continue their engagement with the criminal justice process beyond conviction. Some are too traumatised to be able to consider a victim impact statement, while others gain empowerment and a sense of personal autonomy from choosing to do so,” said Ms Tait. 

The study suggests some crime victims, support agencies and criminal justice professionals are confused about the exact purpose of victim impact statements and their influence on sentencing decisions. 

The time is right for a review of the NSW guidelines for dealing with such statements.
Fiona Tait

More than 50 percent of the crime victims interviewed for the study reported having their statements edited. Edits are often required by legislation, such as instances where details are no longer admissible after a charge sheet is updated.

Crime victims were not always consulted about the edits prior to them being made, and often little explanation was given, the study notes. In some cases these edits resulted in anguish for those who had carefully considered and detailed their experience of the personal impacts of the crime. 

“The time is right for a review of the NSW guidelines for dealing with such statements, particularly now that statements delivered by family victims can be considered during sentencing. Clearer legislation and improved practices could  prevent crime victims being further traumatised by the editing of their VIS and inconsistent management of their expectations about their influence come sentencing,” said Ms Tait. 

NSW Commissioner of Victims Rights Mahashini Krishna has welcomed the report, which will help improve the government’s response to victims of crime and their families.

“The NSW Government is committed to treating victims with care and compassion and ensuring they receive help when they need it,” Ms Krishna said. 

“We support Fiona Tait’s research and are already in the process of implementing some of her recommendations including an online video that will make it easier, simpler and faster for victims to fill out victim impact statements.

“Victims Services is also in the process of creating fact sheets, improving frontline services to ensure staff can be better support victims and working closely with the Witness Assistance Service to educate counsellors about Victim Impact Statements."

The study also recommends the gathering of detailed statistics regarding VIS in sentencing proceedings, data not currently recorded or available in NSW.

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser

Victim Impact Statement reforms

  • Create a dedicated phone line with trained personnel, explanatory web videos and information sheets in Local Courts
  • Standardise options inside the courtroom for where and how crime victims can read out statements at Supreme, District and Local Courts
  • Provide information and guidance to the judiciary regarding the verbal acknowledgement of VIS in closing comments 
  • Provide financial aid to victims who cannot afford to attend court to make a VIS and explain to them in practical terms how such aid works 
  • Provide a means for victims to present VIS when defendants are found not guilty because of mental illness or diminished capacity 
  • Educate police, police prosecutors, defence lawyers and magistrates about the complexities and emotional challenges of VIS
  • Standardise the information victim support agencies can provide about VIS