Victims and Criminal Justice: A History

Author: Pamela Cox, Robert Shoemaker, & Heather Shore
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2023.  304 pages.
Reviewer: Kim Stevenson | April 2024

From the first two pages, it was clear that this book would be a highly readable, compelling, and comprehensive study of the status and treatment of victims of crime under the English criminal justice system during the last three centuries. The authors, all internationally recognized crime historians, expertly synthesize and integrate an impressive collection of existing literature with primary sources, including the Old Bailey Proceedings 1617-1913 (which Professor Robert Shoemaker digitized) supplemented by newspaper reportage—specifically, The Times for the twentieth century. Their aim is to track the historiographic shifts and paradigms that underpinned the ways in which those impacted by criminal acts were perceived and treated throughout the trial process. Whether as prosecutors themselves, complainants, or simply witnesses in (or to) the proceedings, the different nomenclatures assigned were predicated on these statuses. The extent to which, in different eras, victims were empowered or subordinated as legal actors, subjects, or objects was contingent on the overriding demands of the prevailing justice system. Geographically, the focus is London-centric until 1834, when the jurisdictional limits of the Central Criminal Court were expanded to hear indictments beyond the Metropolis if the premise of a fair trial might be tainted by local bias.

The authors rightly claim that this is the first book of its kind “to present a critical history of victims’ changing involvement in English criminal trials,” and it is hugely important and long overdue (p. 21). Typically, the reality of the victim experience and associated academic perspectives, particularly in cases of physical and sexual violence, have been overshadowed and minimized in favor of a persistent emphasis on those accused/convicted and a narrative of enshrining their espoused rights in the law. This disparity, the inherent ‘Justice Gap,’ is expressly highlighted from the beginning and contextualized with reference to the impact of gender, class, disability, and reputation on the likelihood of reporting crime, prosecution, or alternative disposal. It is also pleasing to note, given my own area of research expertise, that the authors include specific sections on the unique and aggravating problems faced by victims of sexual violence, both adults and children.

From a historical-legal perspective, Chapter 3 tracks, in detail, the legislative changes that underpin the shift from victims as prosecutors to victims sponsored by state/public prosecutions. Initially, I thought more discussion was warranted regarding the transition from victims as individual subjects with agency to their manifestation as legal objects denied legal representation compared to defendants, who steadily gained more rights and concessions, particularly in the twentieth century. However, this point is picked up again in a later chapter on trials and outcomes where the gradual disempowerment of victims in terms of how crimes that directly impact them are prosecuted and their subsequent marginalization within the courtroom and criminal justice process is substantiated.

I was also surprised and frustrated about the inconsistency and failure to adhere to legal conventions concerning referencing legislation. Statutes are continually and incorrectly referred to—for example, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act or the Poor Prisoners Defence Act of 1930. This is a clumsy practice evident throughout the book and is of concern as it will perpetuate misuse amongst scholars; statutes should always be presented as per their parliamentary Short Title—i.e., Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Similarly, a lot of effort has been expended on including the legal citation for every statute included, which also defies legal convention and is a practice long dispensed with. Both approaches are disconcerting, especially as no justification is given for such anomalies despite the consistency adopted by the numerous legal and crime historians referenced.

The chapter on public prosecution offers useful insights into the establishment of the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions (1879) and Crown Prosecution Service (1985), including the initial myriad individual private, charitable, and agency prosecutors. This progression is integrated and tracked in parallel with the development of the modern police force, demonstrating how prosecutions were shaped and affected by the intervention of police and, until the removal of constabulary powers to prosecute summary offences in 1985, the questionable lack of independent decision-making.

Victim profiling based on over 230,000 prosecutions identified in the Old Bailey Proceedings provides the empirical evidence for the most intriguing and groundbreaking chapter, populating user-friendly charts categorized by class, gender, age, and ethnicity. The statistical data presented, including methodological rationales and constraints, is staggering and confirms what many crime historians suspect in relation to their own thematic expertise but have been unable to convincingly prove. The conclusions are fascinating and meaningful; it would be wrong to include any spoilers here other than to say that any future crime history literature should incorporate and consider these findings, like, for example, the correlation between type of offense committed and class. The section on gender—particularly, sexual violence—is compelling and confirms the practical impact of legislative and social change over the course of the period reviewed, whereas existing literature has focused only on sporadic bursts. The outstanding composition here is the amalgamation of chronological and contextual scale which should be applauded.

As alluded to above, the effect on victims of the increasing ‘lawyerization’ of the criminal justice process was a causal factor in reducing their autonomy and agency in participating in criminal legal proceedings and indicating a potentially agreeable outcome, as featured in the penultimate chapter, which analyses trial outcomes and sentencing from the data probed. The concept of victim passivity is explored in more depth in the final chapter, exemplifying specific types of marginalized victims, including those who have suffered sexual and/or domestic violence, identity-based crimes, and the extent to which the response of relevant social campaigns and support organizations served to mitigate and reform harsh experiences of state prosecutions.

Undoubtedly, many would be intimidated by such a huge challenge to evaluate and analyze a phenomenal range of academic literature, real life examples, and statistical data. It is to the benefit of all of us as interested and fascinated crime historians, whether new or established researchers, that the authors were sufficiently enthused and skilled to undertake and complete this encyclopedic compendium. They more than deserve our wholehearted respect and admiration for filling in one of the most problematic gaps in our discipline. This publication will assuredly become an essential requisite, a point of primary reference, and has earned its place on all of our bookshelves. The book is dedicated to the memory of Professor Clive Emsley and there is absolutely no doubt he would have been immensely proud that he inspired such a significant, important, and engaging work.


Kim Stevenson is a Professor of Socio-Legal History at the University of Plymouth


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