In 2008, a Greek summer holiday morphed into a nightmare: both for Robert Hughes, a pro-footballer vacationing in Crete, severely beaten outside a nightclub by four fellow Brits; and for his mother, Maggie, who rushed from England to join him at a hospital with no support, no legal advice and no translation services.
“I came back from the hospital after an 18-hour stint. I was alone, stressed, worried and I couldn’t get any information from anyone, “ Maggie Hughes, now a victims’ rights campaigner, tells Equal Times.
Robert, who was 27-years-old at the time, needed emergency life-saving brain surgery. Despite partially recovering – he still plays some football – he is left with permanent brain damage more than seven years later.
“Anyone can become a crime victim at any time,” Levent Altan, Executive Director of Victims Support Europe (VSE), tells Equal Times, citing the recent terror attacks in Paris as an example.
Thanks in part to their campaigning, there is help across much of Europe, though the process has been slow. Last November, European Union Directive 2102/29/EU was transposed into national law, requiring EU members to formally apply it. Initially adopted in 2012, it establishes minimum standards on rights, support and protection for crime victims.
It also advances victims’ rights in criminal proceedings, namely the right to individual assessment of their situation and respectful treatment, the right to information on their rights and the proceedings, increased rights for the victim’s family members, and access to support including interpretation and translation.
And despite the Directive’s transposition deadline, eight EU members – Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Slovenia – still do not have generic victim support services. It highlights the differing EU perceptions of the relationship between the victim and the criminal justice system.
Given the recent economic crisis, funding is also seen as a main concern, but Altan says that doesn’t excuse inaction. For him it is a question of “political prioritisation.” Victim support can be provided relatively cheaply, he says, through NGOs that “use large numbers of volunteers who are highly trained and professional – much more cost-effective than delivering through government.”
“Different specific supports may exist for certain crimes like domestic violence, but if you approached one of these for a generic crime like a robbery, you would not receive help. Our aim is to help these states establish these generic services,” Altan adds.
In a statement to Equal Times former EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, now an MEP for Luxembourg with the European People’s Party (EPP), also expresses her concern over implementation shortcomings. “The EU victims’ rights directive must not become a dead letter,” she says.
In addition, VSE is looking to increase the EU-wide support mechanism for victims and increase coordination between services in different states.
In light of the Paris attacks, Altan says, “we got the VSE Paris member in touch with Dutch and UK victim supports as they would have had many of their fellow citizens returning after these attacks. One project we would like to see done is mapping the contacts in each country for victims to get in touch with.”
“Please Enjoy, Don’t Destroy”
Described by Reding as a driving force behind this Directive, Maggie had to struggle to achieve this result. The lack of support she received prompted her to launch the Facebook campaign Please Enjoy Don’t Destroy (PEDD), as she felt no one else should suffer her ordeal.
“I met many other families who went through the same thing as myself, so I said let’s get something started. I wanted them to have safeguards and support.”
However, she felt ignored in the UK when seeking justice and victims’ rights, with authorities seemingly passing the buck. For Maggie, this was unacceptable.
“If you a criminal or a defendant you get support but, for some reason, if you’re a victim of serious crime you don’t. Everywhere I went they told me this [the attack on Robert] happened outside the UK and therefore they couldn’t help.”
She says took her fight to the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) where she was expecting the same indifference – however she was to be pleasantly surprised. Reding and Kathleen Walker Shaw, the EESC Rapporteur on crime victims and the European Officer for the UK trade union GMB, “really wanted to help and listen and what we have now (the Directive) is the proof of that.”
Taking up the PEDD cause, Walker Shaw tells Equal Times she knew this issue was on the Commission’s agenda. “We felt the Commission could benefit from real-life experience being fed into legislation rather than legal opinions.”
To enhance victims’ rights in court proceedings, individual assessment and protection, the role played by police is essential.
As explained by Altan, this can have a huge impact on trust issues, as many police do not understand criminal proceedings. “It’s not about creating a new role for police, but changing their current one and helping them when they interact with victims to get it right. If they work with victims, then they won’t drop out of the criminal process.”
Also essential is eliminating “secondary victimisation”, whereby a victim is further harmed, such as in continuous interviewing where they have to constantly re-live the crime.
Altan believes this can be achieved by having a single interview that could be recorded, thus ensuring minimal effect on victims, especially if they are children.
Although not obligatory in the Directive, another pivotal element to ensure more compassion for victims is support from industry and business. In Maggie Hughes’ case her mobile phone company, upon learning of her circumstances, didn’t charge her for calls made during her ordeal.
“If they hadn’t helped me I would have had a bill of around £5,000 (€6,850), which would have crippled us,” she says.
More needs to be done, she said, especially in the travel sector, including car hire companies who could give discounted or free deals for victims.
“In Greece we needed someone at the hospital with my son at all times. Each time someone left to get some rest at the hotel, the cab ride cost €23.” She says it could have been a quarter of the cost if they got a hire car at a reduced rate, if car hire companies were to support victims.
Walker Shaw is hopeful the EESC can encourage industry to respond more sympathetically to victims, with the passing of this Directive.
“Instead of discussing the cost of doing something, employers need to debate the cost of doing nothing,” she says. “We spoke to tourist agencies, about them selling tickets and printing information about discounts and promotion.
“How can it cost too much to put the emergency services’ contacts on tickets as a separate pull off for families? These are the simple things that workplaces and travel agents could do.”
Proponents also concur that the same message needs to be driven home to employers. Two members of the Hughes family lost their jobs as they had to care for Robert.
“Their employers didn’t understand this was a life-or-death situation,” explains Maggie, adding that she receives calls from other families, under huge pressure deciding whether to work or deal with an emergency situation.
Walker Shaw concurs that increased compassion is also in the interest of employers, pointing out “if an experienced employee loses a job through a knee-jerk reaction, then the employer will spend months training in someone new.”
An employer will benefit as the employee “will be very grateful and will work harder for the employer,” she says. “Good employers increase the motivational levels of employees.”
Regarding member state implementation of the Directive, “close monitoring and technical assistance are crucial,” states Reding. EU member states must comply with the Directive “if they don’t want to risk facing charges before the European Court of Justice.”
The Commission is due to deliver a report on this matter, but not until 2017.
Meanwhile, the four men involved in the attack on Robbie Hughes were eventually convicted in Greece, yet escaped with suspended sentences and were allowed to return to the UK.
Despite this shocking leniency, Maggie Hughes remains upbeat over the transposition of the Directive. “This is not just for my family but for all of those families who have struggled to get advice support and attention for their cases.”