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Less than promised on victims’ rights – and that’s good

Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes an announcement about the "Victims Bill of Rights" legislation in Mississauga on April 3, 2014.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

The Conservative government's victims'-rights bill, tabled last week, has turned out to be reassuringly moderate, by comparison with some of its other tough-on-crime measures. The Conservatives have delivered something less than promised – and in this case, that's the right call.

The Canadian Victims Bill of Rights gives victims of crime, among other things, a right to information about a prosecution, a right to have their concerns expressed and a right to have their privacy and security considered. Good. But the bill does not enable victims of crime to take over the functions of judges and prosecutors. Nor will their views come to prevail over prison officials or parole hearing officers. That's a line that must not be crossed.

In particular, victims of crime will not exercise vetoes over plea bargaining. Many people see plea bargains as shabby compromises. But most of the time, negotiations over pleas amount to realistic assessments of what could really achieved in a trial, in the light of available evidence. Sometimes, police lay more charges against an accused person than can practically be sustained, precisely in order to induce the defendant to plead guilty to the more solidly grounded charges.

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It is characteristic of this bill that it requires judges to consider making a restitution order or compensatory payment as part of a convicted person's sentence. It puts a judge's mind to that potential course of action, but it doesn't compel it. That's the right balance.

There is uncertainty as to why a victim's rights bill includes an abolition of "spousal privilege," an age-old common-law rule that wives and husbands cannot be subpoenaed to give evidence against their spouses. No doubt, it will make certain cases easier to prosecute, and in that sense it will sometimes help victims of crime.

Some of the new requirements for greater communication with victims will add to the work of the courts and the police. So be it; the goals are worthwhile and reasonable, and should make the processes of the justice system more comprehensible to the public.

In this instance, Minister of Justice Peter MacKay's past experience as a Crown attorney has probably been valuable. Yes, the bill gives victims of crime a few new, carefully tailored rights. Anything more would have threatened the impartiality at the core of our justice system.

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