This week we commemorate in Poland the National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (19-25 February 2018) which has led me to briefly summarise the nature of victim support in the Polish criminal justice system.
One of the developments that aimed to change the Polish penal landscape after 1989 was to address the role of victims in the Polish criminal justice system. Victims’ rights were substantially codified in the 1997 Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. While many of these developments have aimed to promote victims’ rights, the nature of the Polish inquisitorial justice system further enables crime victims to actively participate in criminal proceedings. Victims’ engagement with and role in the Polish criminal justice system depends on the type of crime they fall victim to as well as the type of prosecution that follows. Polish law distinguishes between public prosecutors appointed by the Prosecutor General and private prosecutors who are parties to criminal proceedings and who may assist public prosecutors in their work. In a public prosecution the victims are entitled to join the proceedings as ‘auxiliary prosecutors’. In so doing, the victim is then entitled to the following rights: making applications, lodging complaints, submitting evidence, reviewing case files, applying for legal representation, applying for help with court costs, applying for non-contact-orders, applying for compensation or damages to be awarded, and appealing court decisions. The only research to my knowledge that sheds light on this issue is the study carried out by the Institute of the Justice System (2012) in which the impact of the victim on cases of consensual sentencing (sentencing without a trial) was examined based on court file analysis. The research findings demonstrate that victims of crime usually do not appear at the court hearings. If they do, their activity concerns mostly the subject of compensation which in consequence makes their impact on the sentencing rather insignificant.
In 1999, the Polish Victim Charter was introduced and since 2003 National Crime Victims’ Rights Week has been celebrated every February in Poland. The very first provisions assisting victims of crime in Poland can be traced back to the socialist regime when the rudiments of victim assistance originated. That was the time when the following institutions were established: the Post-penitentiary Assistance Fund (Fundusz Pomocy Postpenitencjarnej), the Victim Support Agency (Fundacja Pomocy Ofiarom Przestępstw) and the Child Support Agency (Fundusz Alimentacyjny). Since 1 January 2012 the first two have been merged into the Victim and Post-penitentiary Assistance Fund (Fundusz Pomocy Osobom Pokrzywdzonym Przestępstwem i Pomocy Postpenitencjarnej). The Fund is managed by the Ministry of Justice and there are various sources of revenue (e.g. compensation/fees ordered by the courts, 10% of income earned by serving/working prisoners). Currently, the assistance to victims of crime, financed by the aforementioned agency, is then provided by both public (the Polish police, health care services, prosecutor’s office, the judiciary) and non-public institutions (NGOs).
In 2008 the Polish Ministry of Justice also established the Support Network for Victims of Crime that is comprised of 15 separate Support Centres operating throughout the country. Victim Support Centres offer the following services: legal advice for victims of crime and their families, counselling for victims of crime and their families, referrals to other services that provide specialist help, food vouchers, cost of temporary accommodation, cost of health services, or cost of public transport expenses.
Overall, there has been an increased recognition of victims’ needs and rights in criminal proceedings in Poland. However, Bieńkowska & Mazowiecka (2009) have observed that victims’ rights have been subject to a number of changes that are sometimes contradictory and the quality of the changes still does not meet the expectations of Polish criminologists. Despite the fact that a lot has been done to promote victims’ needs, the problem of secondary victimisation has not been fully addressed. While legislative measures have been put in place to provide an adequate level for the protection of people who fall victim to crime, the practical measures still have not achieved the full measure of justice as promised in the legislation. One of the main obstacles that remains is access to justice to ensure that victims are aware of their rights and understand them both linguistically and legally. However, on that note, it is worth acknowledging that last year Judge Jarosław Gwizdak, known for his highly innovative approach to the justice system, drafted with the help of Dr Tomasz Piekot, from the University of Wrocław, a clear, understandable, and user-friendly witness summons in civil matters.
It is yet to be seen how Directive 2012/29/EU (also known as the Victims’ Directive) will influence the Polish criminal justice system’s response to crime victims. The Directive was adopted in 2012 in order to establish the minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime – and restorative justice is acknowledged in the Directive as an important way to take into account the interests and needs of the victim, and to repair the harm done to the victim. The Victims’ Directive introduces an obligation for all EU member states to inform crime victims as to the availability of any restorative justice services and to facilitate referrals to these services. By 16 November 2017, and every three years thereafter, every EU member state must provide the European Commission with data showing how victims have accessed the rights set out in the Directive.
Unfortunately the empirical work conducted on the extent to which the victims’ rights have been implemented in Poland has been scarce. Although it is not study-based, Brążkowska and colleagues in the following report ‘Assistance to Victims of Crime in Poland’ critically review the current provisions for victims of crime in Poland and highlight that, apart from domestic violence cases, there are no comprehensive proactive mechanisms of reaching out to victims of crime in Poland. Although the authors of the report acknowledge the increasing numbers of victims who are referred to Support Centres by various institutions, they still identify the following pitfalls as far as victims’ support in Poland is concerned: dispersed and uneven national support, poor information about compensation for victims, low amounts of compensation paid to the victims, lack of victim assistance standards, lack of liaison officers dedicated to work with victims of crime, general practice of ‘discouraging victims to report crime’, low level of public awareness about victims’ rights, lack of cooperation between victims’ organisations.
It is surely one thing to acknowledge and support victims of crime, but even more important it is to understand the victim’s experience, deconstruct the victim mentality and empower those who fall victims to a crime. And this shall be a topic for a future post.
Bieńkowska, E. & Mazowiecka, L. (2009) Prawa ofiar przestępstw (Crime Victims’ Rights’). Warszawa: Wolters Kluwer.
Brążkowska, O.; Dębińska, K.; Gawenda, E.; Toporowski, J.; & Piechowiak, T. (2013) Assistance to Victims of Crime in Poland – selected issues. Available at: http://providus.lv/upload_file/Projekti/Kriminalitesibas/Victim%20support/5.%20PL.pdf
Pali, B. (2016) Briefing Paper about the Regulation of Restorative Justice in the Directive 2012/29/EU. Available at: http://www.euforumrj.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/EFRJ-Briefing-Paper-RJ-in-the-Victims-Directive.pdf