Justice Minister Peter MacKay is wrapping up a series of cross-country consultations on a proposed victims' bill of rights this week, setting the stage for the new legislation to be introduced once Parliament returns this fall.
First announced in February, the bill has been touted as a key plank in the Conservative government's bid to transform Canada's criminal justice system to make it more accessible to victims of crime. However, victims' advocates say Ottawa will have to tread carefully to ensure the proposed law does not infringe on provincial jurisdiction – or bog down the country's already overburdened courts.
Details of the bill have not yet been made public, and Mr. MacKay says he expects to continue consultations with his provincial and territorial counterparts before the legislation is tabled. But a series of recommendations prepared by the federal victims' ombudsman earlier this year sheds some light on what the government may consider as it prepares the new legislation.
Here is a summary of some of ombudsman Sue O'Sullivan's main proposals (her full report is available here).
1. Give victims the right to request a review of a crown decision not to prosecute an individual. The federal ombudsman for victims of crime says the idea recognizes victims as "real participants with both interests to protect and rights to enforce," not just observers.
2. Ensure victims are informed that they can sign up to receive regular updates about an offender's status. Ms. O'Sullivan recommends that victims who want the information be provided with a pre-sentencing report, notice of parole-board hearings and information about the individual's release, among other information.
3. Victims should have the right to play an active role during the plea-bargaining process – excluding the right to veto a deal – and to present a victim-impact statement during sentencing, Ms. O'Sullivan says.
4. Ms. O'Sullivan says victims should be given a guaranteed right to protection, including provisions allowing them to attend court proceedings and parole hearings without coming into contact with an offender or that person's family. This change, if implemented, could require changes in the courts to ensure that separate waiting rooms are available when needed.
5. The bill of rights should also be enforceable, which means victims must have access to legal representation to bring their case to a higher court if they feel their rights have been violated. This provision would require greater federal resources to ensure victims receive legal support to pursue a case, Ms. O'Sullivan says.
In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. MacKay acknowledged concerns that have been raised by some victims' advocates that the proposed bill could include measures that create added delays in provincial courts as officials try to give victims a greater role. Critics of the proposed bill have also noted that the legislation risks interfering with the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories, which are responsible for the administration of victims' services.
Recent consultations Mr. MacKay held in Vancouver and Moncton, in particular, dealt with concerns about possible unintended consequences of the proposed bill, including the risk that they could slow down the administration of justice.
Mr. MacKay said the government will take care to avoid those problems when it tables the bill. "What we want to ensure is that we're not getting into a jurisdictional wrangle over this," he said. "That's the last thing that we want to do. Nor do we want to further complicate or cause delays."