Witnesses of violence are to be offered counselling

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Witnesses to murders and serious violent crimes are set to be offered the same free, specialist support as the victims of crimes, under new proposals unveiled by the government.

The Ministry of Justice plans to extend National Homicide Service support given to the bereaved relatives of crime victims to murder and manslaughter witnesses as part of a new “public health approach” to tackling the causes of violence. The support currently offered to crime victims by the state-funded service includes access to counselling and legal advice, as well as emotional support and funding for travel to court.

Announcing the measures, Justice Secretary David Gauke pointed to the increasing body of evidence that witnessing serious violence can cause severe psychological trauma and “fuel a continued cycle of brutal offending if the consequences are not fully addressed.”

The initiative will be trialled with a pilot scheme in London before being considered for a nationwide roll-out and an extension to victims of violent crime.

“By improving the treatment of witnesses, through enhanced support from the National Homicide Service and more proactive interventions with vulnerable young people, all those affected by serious violence can have confidence that the justice system will stand by them and ensure criminals are brought to justice,” the Justice Secretary said.

Government launches multi-agency approach to tackling knife crime

The government’s new public health approach to criminal violence is championed by Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who this year launched a consultation into the potential benefits of the strategy in specific relation to tackling the rise of youth knife crimes.

Knife and weapon offences reached the highest level for nearly a decade in England and Wales last year, with a 23% increase in the proportion of victims aged between 25 and 34 years old. In 2018, the criminal justice system dealt with nearly 21,500 crimes related to weapons – the highest annual total since 2009. Under the government’s proposed new strategy, legislation could enforce a public health duty on multiple agencies including schools, hospitals and social workers to spot and report signs that a young person may be at risk of knife crime.

Workers at youth offender institutions will additionally be trained to spot the signs of past abuse, exploitation or serious violence experienced by teenage inmates and direct those affected to support services.

Speaking ahead of a government summit on knife crime in April, prime minister Theresa May advocated a multi-agency approach to tackling crime, exhorting:

“To bring about lasting change and protect young people from the tragic violence we have seen on our streets, we need to work across society to intervene early and stop them from being drawn into crime.”

Victim support overhaul as “timely”

The new emphasis on support for the witnesses of crimes has been backed as a progressive and significant step by charities and campaigners.

The government first announced plans to overhaul support for crime victims and witnesses with the launch of the first ever cross-government Victims Strategy in September 2018. As part of the strategy, the government is currently in the process of reviewing the Victims’ Code, which sets out the entitlements of those affected by crime, to clarify the support on offer for witnesses of serious violent crimes.

Victim Support chief officer Diana Fawcett welcomed the move to extend National Homicide Service support to crime witnesses, agreeing with evidence cited by the government that those who witness murder and manslaughter “can be left traumatised and in need of support.”

Victims Commissioner Baroness Newlove meanwhile praised the government for its “timely focus on the needs and rights of victims,” calling the efforts “a major step forward towards ensuring [victims] receive the care, support and justice they deserve.”

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