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Strengthening victims’ rights – Doing justice for the victims of crime

Conference organised by Victim Support Europe/Brussels
6 November 2013

Main Messages

Justice cannot be done if the victim is forgotten and not treated justly.

We needed to give victims across the European Union a voice in the criminal justice systems.

EU laws on victims adopted since 2011 must not become a dead letter: the measures agreed at EU level should now be translated into national law.

Crime does not pay, but criminals should. We should consider action on offender compensation and other restitution schemes.

We should reflect on the possibilities to develop crime victims' funds financed by penalties, fines or surcharges.

Full Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

Every year police across Europe records an estimate of 30 million crimes. And not all crimes are reported. Many victims simply do not report what has happened. One thing is sure though: behind each crime there is a victim, a family and their loved ones. And with each victim there is a story of trauma, suffering and insecurity.

People do not choose to become victims of crime: crime is inflicted on them. Anyone can be a victim of crime and those not directly affected by the crime often do not understand how difficult the recovery can be. Yet victims play second fiddle when it comes to interacting with the criminal justice systems. And the level of victims’ rights differs widely from country to country.

When taking up office as EU Justice Commissioner in 2010 I began working to make strong and clear obligations for national authorities to meet the needs of victims. The aim was to make full use of the Lisbon Treaty tools to reinforce judicial protection. This would be done by giving victims the same non-discriminatory minimum level of rights, services and access to justice, everywhere in the European Union. Moreover, we also needed to provide protection to victims of violence, in particular domestic violence, across the European Union. The aim was to make restraining orders issued in one country recognised by all other countries. This would ensure that the protection would travel with the citizen.

In short, EU legislation would help victims see that justice is done and ease their difficult journey of recovery.

Beyond alleviating victims' suffering, EU legislative action was important for the European area of justice as a whole. It was a building block for reinforcing the mutual trust that is fundamental to develop a fully functioning European judicial area. Mutual trust cannot be imposed by decree; mutual trust implies that judiciaries have faith in each other’s standards of fairness and justice. European citizens should also have confidence that the same level of minimum rules will be applied should they travel or live abroad in the European Union.

Moreover, as we took action to protect the rights of the suspects and of the accused, we also needed to take care of protecting the rights of the victims. We needed to give victims across the European Union a voice in the criminal justice systems. That is what we set out to achieve two years ago when we presented the victims' rights package.

And we did so. Thanks to the determination and hard work of many present here – including Members of European Parliament like Teresa Jimenez-Becerril and Antonyia Parvanova, officials in the Ministries of Justice of Member States and victim support organisations such as Victim Support Europe and its members –all legislative proposals were adopted and later published in the Official Journal.

They are now part of the EU rulebook. We have now inscribed in law a range of measures to ensure that victims receive proper treatment from the moment they report a crime to the final outcome of criminal proceedings. In the European Year of Citizens 2013, this is an excellent example of how Europe is working for its citizens.

Now that we have the law we have to put it into action. For me this means taking three steps: transposition, implementation and designing future action.

First, on transposition: the EU laws on victims adopted since 2011 must not become a dead letter. We will not allow them to become dead letter. The measures agreed at EU level should be made into national law. We must therefore now turn our attention to the Member States. The EU laws on victims must be operational and fully available to victims by the transposition deadline in 2015.

As of January 2015, the two protection measures should be fully operational in the Member States and by November 2015 the victims’ rights Directive should be transposed into national law.

Since October last year, we have worked to assist Member States to avoid incomplete or late transposition of the Directives into national law. To this end we have brought together experts from the 28 Member States for a first meeting last May. We will organise further workshops on best practices in victims' protection and support in the next two years. My services will therefore continue to assist the Member States by issuing guidance documents, promoting training and bringing together the relevant experts. The aim is to ensure that the national laws transposing the Directives and enabling the Regulations to work are done correctly and on time.

The Commission will monitor transposition and compliance by the Member States in relation to their obligations to give meaning and effect to the European Union law.

Second, on implementation: making sure that the EU law is transposed into national legal frameworks is important. But nice principles on paper will not help people who need real and effective rights when they fall victim to a crime. We must take the necessary action to ensure that the law in the books is implemented in practice and makes a difference in the ground. In other words: We need to ensure that the rights are accessible in practice for victims across Europe.

This requires paying particular attention to three central elements of the EU legislation: first, ensuring the right of a victim to information: information is a gateway for accessing all other rights. Second, to further develop an individual assessment of victims' needs. And third, ensuring EU-wide general and specialist victims' support services: as part of EU law, support services for victims should be available in all 28 Member States. And the professionals helping victims should have appropriate training.

Only when victims feel they have easy access to information, know their rights, and are supported by experienced professionals who understand their emotional and legal situation, will they stop feeling isolated.

Putting the law into action will therefore require action by governments as well as by other stakeholders such as victim support organisations and private companies.

I am encouraged by the examples of best practices I see taking place across the Europe. Let me mention just two: the first by Weisser Ring Germany: it has been organising seminars of experts to address the challenges of implementing minimum standards for victims of crime throughout Germany. A key factor of success for this initiative has been bringing together professionals from different areas such as judges, lawyers, medical staff, therapists, police officers as well as staff of various victim support services. This multifaceted way of addressing the challenges allows all the different players in the criminal justice system to keep the needs of the victims in mind during the proceedings.

Another example of good practice is the website by the APAV – the Portuguese victims support office. This website describes in clear and plain language the role of each player, including victims, in proceedings, even offering very practical tips for victims and witnesses about testifying.

I look forward to seeing these examples followed by others. This would help meet the objective of the EU law: ensuring that victims have at least a minimum level of rights in the criminal justice process.

Design future action

Our work should not stop here. We must continue to look at gaps we should address in the future.

In this context, I welcome Victim Support Europe and its members for the Manifesto 2014-2019 being presented today. This is a healthy sign of vitality in this area and provides many good ideas for future reflection.

Let me from my side also add a few other ideas:

- first, compensation for victims of crime: crime does not pay, but criminals should. We should consider action on offender compensation and other restitution schemes. This is essential to ensure that victims obtain a fair compensation as they rebuild their lives.

- second, building on the examples operating in some Member States we should reflect on the possibilities to develop crime victims funds financed by penalties, fines or surcharges.

- third, researching further into the benefits of restorative justice and victim-offender mediation schemes.

- fourth, develop concrete projects to promote pan-European victims of crime awareness events.

These are ideas that could be put in practice over the next five years. To this end, I hope you will be able to continue to provide the Commission with your expertise and your help to ensure that victims’ rights are further developed.

In two weeks – on 21 and 22 November – the Commission will hold the Assises de la Justice. It will be an event to begin a reflection on how best to shape justice policies in Europe for the years to come.

I would like to see the ideas put forward by Victim Support Europe today also forming part of the discussions at the Assises. I hope we can count on your presence and discuss further these ideas.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A key test to judge the quality of a justice system is to see how victims are treated. It is therefore crucial not only to combat and prevent crime, but also to properly support and protect individuals who do fall victim to crime.

To strengthen mutual trust across the European Union we have a duty not only to uphold the rights of individuals who are accused or convicted of a crime but also to protect the rights of the victims of crime. This is why I have taken action to ensure that around Europe, victims' needs are recognised and victims treated with respect and sensitivity.

We will never be able to reverse the suffering of victims of crime or restore all that they have lost. We must, nevertheless, continue to do our utmost to minimise the frustration and confusion that victims of crime have to live through after the crime. Justice cannot be done if the victim is forgotten and not treated justly.

Thank you for your attention.

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