Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Courtroom therapy makes a mockery of justice
UK courts will soon give the family of murder victims their say in court - that is bad news for all concerned.

The announcement that relatives of individuals who have been killed or murdered will have the right to make a statement to the court before the killer is sentenced shows the rise and rise of therapeutic justice.

Britain's Lord Chancellor has unveiled a pilot scheme which will give a voice to bereaved relatives in murder and manslaughter trials. Starting today at the Old Bailey in London, and in Crown Courts in Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Winchester, the scheme will involve a 'victim's advocate' speaking to the court on behalf of the victim's family. He or she will outline how the killing affected the family, and how they are coping in its aftermath. The statement will be made after the jury has reached its verdict but before the court has passed sentence.

The problem is that therapeutic justice makes a mockery of real justice. Victims of crime have every right to feel powerful emotions about their loss. But their emotions must not be allowed to influence the sentencing policies of the court. How people feel about a crime must not be confused with how we judge a criminal act.

The incorporation of emotionalism into the justice system has been one of the most destructive innovations of recent years in Anglo-American legal culture. Under the banner of extending victims' rights, activists are altering the very nature of justice. The aim of their campaigns is to give victims of crime a privileged status, which has had the effect of undermining defendants' rights. Victims' advocates insist that their clients be given a direct role in court proceedings - and allowing victims to address courts before sentencing is a big concession to the advocates' campaigning.

However, the use of victim-impact statements is likely to undermine the importance of objectively measuring criminal behaviour. Criminal judgments will have a greater subjective component as the feelings of victims may start to influence sentencing. How a crime impacts on a family member depends on specific circumstances, on different individuals' personalities and characters. Its impact is arbitrary and subjective. After all, a murder is no less serious if family members cope well with it.

It is clearly right that victims' families and friends should be treated properly in the legal process, and that they should be informed of all important developments. But enhancing the status of the victim in criminal proceedings has serious implications for a fair trial. It is likely to distract judge and jury alike from adopting an objective view of the proceedings. Legal objectivity is an ideal that is rarely realised even at the best of times. Introducing more emotionalism into courtrooms can only promote arbitrary justice.

First published on spiked, 24 April 2006