An estimated 75 million people are the victims of crime every year in the European Union. Some receive good help and support, but many others are left to struggle on their own. Now efforts are underway in Europe to make sure that victims do not also become victims of the system.
One of Europe’s best victim support systems can be found in Scotland. It is seen by some as a model for other countries, and people there can expect that after a crime help is not far away.
But that is little comfort for one family we spoke to, whose ordeal is a good example of the torment that EU victims can face.
The case is that of an Edinburgh man who died during a trip to Spain last October.
Chris Lindsay was found in the street with severe injuries after a night out with work mates on the Costa del Sol. He had become a new father just months before.
His family has had to call on Victim Support Scotland to help in their battle to get a formal inquiry opened in Spain. They have been up against language barriers, a struggle to get information and bureaucratic mix-ups.
Before he died, Chris Lindsay told hospital staff he had been assaulted. But the family still has no official answers.
The partner of the victim, Vikki Soloman, told euronews: “Not only have we lost Chris, but now we’re having to fight with the justice system to get his case looked at, for justice for him, for me, for the family, for his children.
“It’s devastating, to be honest. We’re trying to grieve the loss of somebody very important to us, but we can’t really grieve because we actually still don’t know what’s happened. But even if we have an idea of what’s happened, we’re angry with the system now and the length of time it’s taking.
“Nobody can move on with their life because it’s still there in the background and we’re still fighting against the courts to get our case opened up in court and to get it looked at at the Spanish end. And the more that time goes on, the less evidence and information they’ve got, and people do forget.”
A family friend who is a retired lawyer is also trying to help with fresh legal moves and Victim Support Scotland is currently attempting to raise awareness about the case in Spain.
Harry Lindsay, the father of the victim, added: “Everybody in Europe has got to look at the system and listen to the victims, the parents and such, and try to learn from them, and try to see and upgrade that (the system), and make it an awful lot easier. Because this is horrific. It doesn’t stop at all. It’s with you every minute of the day, and as the hours go by you’ve got to cope with that. But if you feel as though you’re getting a bit of help, and the system was a lot easier, then I think that would help an awful lot.”
But who provides that help is a big question for victims who complain of having no voice.
While Scottish progress on the issue has already been significant, politicians there are even now considering a victim surcharge, meaning offenders would have to pay towards the cost of support services. Courts would also have to consider compensation in every case involving injury, loss or distress.
But now there is also wider action: a new European Union directive expected to be adopted soon. It aims to ensure the same level of protection, support and access to justice for victims right across the bloc.
Current laws in some states are described as patchy, particularly when it comes to victims not in their home countries.
David McKenna, the President of Victim Support Europe, and Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland, told euronews: “First of all there’s little understanding on the part of the justice systems in most countries about the needs of victims of crime. This is a new concept for many justice systems.
“But for the individual victims it’s the fact that they’re often being victimised in a country where they have little understanding of the judicial systems there, and indeed there are challenges over language difficulties and there’s a lack of translation. So it can be a really terrible experience to be in one country that’s not your own country, and to be a victim of crime.”
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “Experts say implementing the changes across Europe is not going to be easy. They say it’s a question of states having the willingness to improve their procedures, but it’s also a question of resources and finance.”
Another example of a country gearing up for the reform is Lithuania. The beefing up of support services will not just benefit those who have problems abroad: systems will have to be improved for local people too.
Special provisions for the likes of domestic violence victims are planned, which is something welcomed at a women’s refuge that euronews visited in Vilnius.
One victim of domestic violence, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “At first I was afraid, because I was threatened, and I was too scared to complain as I thought they would just say ‘well, it’s a mother with children, she’s the guilty one’, as this is most often the case in Lithuania: women are more guilty than men. I was scared, but then I gave in. I was so stressed, nervous and angry. I decided to call the police and ask them to take me away, as the children and I needed psychological help.”
The head of the centre, Nijolė Dirsienė, stressed the importance of social assistance, helping victims gain new skills and knowledge to change their situation. Prevention and awareness are also key.
She told euronews: “In terms of an effective solution, I think perhaps the best example to show the public is not the existence of crisis centres for women who stay there. We need to show quickly investigated court cases, quick judgements, using the full extent of the law to deal with abusive behaviour. The public needs to be made aware of these cases, and understand that violence in the family is punishable, and no cases should go unpunished.”
Lithuania says the new EU directive will not mean great changes to its laws, as provisions regarding victims already exist. It maintains that priorities in Brussels are also priorities in Lithuania. Officials highlight a new law in 2009, which allows victims of violent crime to seek compensation from the state. But they do admit that progress on the ground is still needed.
Tomas Vaitkevičius, Lithuania’s Deputy Justice Minister, said: “There are actually problems that are more to do with the practical issues of implementation, with regards to the lack of means. And quite often, I must admit, there is a lack of competence among the officials when it comes to understanding the victim in the procedures, and also the needs of the victims. It is really quite a challenge for everyone concerned.”
And many of those who work in the field know that it is also not just a question of simply having the right procedures written into law. ‘Respect’ was a key word used by a state prosecutor and legal researcher we spoke to, Eglė Matuizienė.
“The victim of crime is actually more interested in respectful behaviour that enables them to retain their own dignity than in the final judgement of the case,” she said. “Therefore it is of great importance to express empathy with the victim, to show care and respect, but this is actually a big problem in Lithuania.”
And that is a message likely to be echoed in many other countries.