Victims of crime finally have the right by law to free legal aid and to be kept informed about the progress of court proceedings against the person who wronged them.

The Victims of Crime Act, which was signed into the law earlier this month, extends to victims the right to free legal aid, which was previously limited to the accused.

The legal aid system in place has long been criticised, mainly because of a lack of resources. A 2013 report commissioned by former justice minister Chris Said stressed the need to inject more resources into the legal aid office and said victims should also benefit from the service.

This point was also raised by NGO Victim Support Malta, which noted that allowing victims with limited financial resources to appear parte civile in criminal cases meant they had a voice during the relevant proceedings.

The new law defines victims of crime as those who have suffered “physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss” caused directly by a criminal offence. The definition also includes the family members of a person who died as a result of a crime.

Victim Support Malta director Roberta Lepre said she was generally pleased with the new law, as it formally recognises victims’ rights.

“The main challenge now is to allocate sufficient resources to ensure that the relevant service providers are enabled to effectively uphold such rights to victims and to ensure that all relevant stakeholders are fully aware of the provisions of this law to make sure they are upheld,” she said.

This was recognised by Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela, who said that the focus would now be turned on the implementation of the law.

“Those government entities regularly in contact with victims of crime also have an obligation to ensure effective promotion of these rights. The government will remain committed to improving victim protection and to strengthening training programmes for officials who may encounter victims of crime,” he said.

The main challenge now is to allocate sufficient resources

Mapping out the main elements of the new law, Dr Lepre said there were three main features: information, protection and support.

It ensured that victims had access to clear information about the relevant procedures, what support services were available and how to access them, how to request protection, how to access legal aid services, how to access compensation and whether one was entitled to translation services.

The victim will have the right to receive a written acknowledgment of a complaint, outlining the basic elements of the crime concerned as well as ongoing information about his or her case.

If the police decided not to arraign the suspect, the victim had the right to be informed of the decision in writing.

The law binds the government to providing support services to victims free of charge after carrying out a needs and risk assessment.

Such support services should include the provision of information about victims’ rights, emotional or psychological support and, additionally, information on the prevention of further risk and victimisation.

The law also obliges the competent authorities to provide victims with information regarding existing measures aimed at protecting them, such as the possibility of asking for a protection order.

It also provides the possibility of appointing a children’s advocate in situations where there could be a conflict between the interests of the minor and those of the parents or holders of parental authority.

People residing in Malta will also be granted the possibility to file a police report in Malta, even if the criminal offence was suffered in another EU member State.

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