In whose service?' - The use and abuse of victims' rights in Ireland

AuthorAnthony Mcgrath
PositionBCL (UCC, 2001); LLM. (TCD, 2003); PhD candidate, University College Cork, 2009
Judicial Studies Institute Journal [2009:1
Victims, previously the forgotten half of the criminal dyad,
have now become the ubiquitous theme of criminal justice
discourse in Ireland, thanks largely to the adroit and resolute
campaigning of victims themselves. The broad public appeal of
victims’ rights is easy to understand; for we are each aware of the
randomness of crime, that at any unfortunate moment any one of
us may find ourselves a victim. However, it is remarkable just
how swiftly the political majority have embraced this victims’
The reaction to what has been described as [the victims’
movement] has been overwhelmingly (and rather
surprisingly) non-controversial … and has not generated
any serious criticism, or any meaningful confrontation …
the quasi response to the rhetorical cry of “justice for
victims” has been favourable. For a legislative issue to
generate so little debate, so little opposition in the highly
confrontational, highly partisan world of politics,
is extremely unusual. The exceptional speed with which
[victims] were rediscovered and their cause adopted by
politicians, let alone the political climate that prevailed at
the time of their rediscovery, are bound to raise questions
about the real interests and motives.1
It would be a mistake to equate the frequency with which
the concerns of victims are cited within the political arena as a
benchmark for gauging just how far victims’ rights have come
within our criminal justice system. Any victim “rights” in Ireland
are emblematic, theoretical and titular rather than real and
enforceable; making it a country that talks about doing more than
* BCL (UCC, 2001); LLM. (TCD, 2003); PhD candidate, University College
Cork, 2009.
1 Fattah, “The Need for a Critical Victimology”, in Fattah (ed.), Towards A
Critical Victimology (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1992), pp. 3-4.
2009] Victims’ Rights 79
is actually being done. Current debate on victims in Irish political
and criminal discourse may portend a better future but its
grammar is, at present, propitiatory. The actual provision of rights
for victims is rhetoric not reality, with the gap between writ large.
For example, the most basic and common need referenced
by crime victims is the need for information, both in relation to
the progress of the investigation and the prosecution specifically,
and to the procedures and workings of the legal system generally.
While this is by far the easiest and most immediate victim
demand that could be met – and there is little, if any objection to
providing victims with relevant and appropriate information –
there exists no legislative right to information, and no statutory
body to oversee its dissemination. Instead, there exists a decade-
old Victims Charter2 that, despite appropriating a tone of rights,
does not confer any. This Charter represents little more than a
collection of aims that can simply be characterised as good
policy, promising victims the fine ideals of efficiency, civility and
fairness, but lacking enforceable remedies for non-compliance.
Indeed, it is, for the most part, wholly insufficient to the task,
emphasising that victims have no rights at all, only mere
courtesies and conveniences, to be extended or withheld at the
whim of criminal justice agencies.
In the clamour for votes that heralds any election season,
victims inarguably receive greater prominence than they do
throughout the broad political calendar. For example, the 2007
Election Manifestos of all political parties made promises directly
beneficial to the victims of crime. Fianna Fáil proposed the
establishment of both a Victim’s Council to formulate victim
policy and a statutory Victim Support Agency;3 the Progressive
Democrats made a commitment to double the funding currently
available for victim support work;4 Fine Gael5 and Labour6 both
2 Victims Charter and Guide to the Criminal Justice System (Dublin:
Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, 1999), available at
3 Now, The Next Steps – Fianna Fáil Election Manifesto 2007 (Fianna Fáil,
2007), p. 102.
4 From Good to Great: Continuing Ireland’s Radical Transformation
General Election Manifesto 2007 (Progressive Democrats, 2007) p. 30,
available at
2007.pdf .

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