As their name suggests, victim advocacy groups represent the interests of victims of crime. One outspoken Australian pressure group is the Victims of Crime Assistance League (VOCAL). This group was formed in New South Wales in the late 1980s, initially to provide support and advice for the families of murder victims. It later expanded this support to include other victims of violent or threatening crimes. The NSW branch of VOCAL now receives financial support from the State government and utilises a mix of paid counsellors and volunteers. VOCAL also has branches in other States and Territories. In Victoria, a similar organisation called the Crimes Victims Support Association (CVSA) is headed by Noel McNamara.
The main business of VOCAL branches is to provide counselling, support and advice on compensation to crime victims. In addition to this role, VOCAL has also acted as a pressure group, seeking changes to criminal law and court procedures. Representatives from VOCAL have often claimed that victims are unrepresented and unheard in the criminal justice system. VOCAL has argued that certain legal principles and court procedures mean the system is weighted in favour of the accused. They also contend that many sentences given for violent crimes against the person are too lenient. This light sentencing causes additional stress and suffering for the victim.
Some of the law reforms mooted by VOCAL and similar pressure groups include:
- The introduction of a victims’ charter of rights, or legislation guaranteeing victims certain rights, such as the right to appear in court and give written or verbal testimony about the impact the crime has had on their life.
- The introduction of restorative justice, where the offender is compelled to meet with the victim in mediation, hear his or her account of the effects of the crime and offer a formal apology.
- Amendments to legislation to broaden the type of evidence permitted in a criminal trial, so that circumstantial evidence, hearsay and information about the accused’s character and previous behaviour can be allowed as evidence.
- Greater judicial accountability, through reviews of judges, their decisions and the creation of popularly-elected judicial appointment boards.
- The abolition of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle, which dictates that an individual may not stand trial for the same criminal offence more than once.
- The abolition of an arrested person’s right to silence when being questioned by the police, as well as the abolition of the right to a witness not to testify in court, if this testimony involves self-incrimination.
- The abolition or tightening of rules for reductions in prison sentences, such as parole procedures, remissions and releases on health ground.
- Lastly and most significantly, these groups have been most outspoken about the leniency of sentences handed to those who commit serious or violent crimes – they have called for longer minimum prison terms, the eradication of suspend sentences and home detention, the introduction of mandatory sentencing and granting juries the power to determine sentences so that they are in line with community standards.
The tabloid media’s strong focus on law and order, particularly in relation to violent and sexual crimes, has thrust VOCAL and similar lobby groups into prominence. Representatives of these groups are often called upon to give an opinion on controversial crimes, judgements and sentences. This media attention has allowed VOCAL and CVSA to become influential pressure groups. In Victoria, the rise of CVSA has coincided with a number of reforms to the law and to court procedures. A sentencing advisory council, a sex offenders register and a victims-of-crime register have all been introduced. Victim impact statements are now tendered in court prior to sentencing, while compensation for victims of crime has been overhauled and increased. The high public profile of Noel McNamara and the CVSA has undoubtedly contributed to these reforms.