The Conservative government won't say how much money it expects the proposed Canadian Victims Bill of Rights will cost, other than to say it has set aside an "undefined" amount of money in the federal budget to handle a victim-complaints system.
"Clearly there's no ability to calculate that at the front end," Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in an interview. "This is going to take some time to take hold."
The bill of rights entrenches in law the right of crime victims to information, participation, protection and restitution. If they feel their rights aren't respected, they can complain to government officials, not to courts. The government has also set aside an undefined amount of money to bolster complaint mechanisms overseen by the provinces, Mr. MacKay said.
He also explained that making convicted criminals contribute to the costs of the victims' rights bill was the idea behind making a controversial financial penalty mandatory, and doubling it, in the fall.
The Victim Fine Surcharge has brought the Conservative government into open conflict with judges in several provinces since it became mandatory on Oct. 24. The charge is set aside to pay for victim services such as counselling.
"A victim fine surcharge is in most cases a modest amount. It seems to me it's an effort to rebalance the way in which costs are administered. The accused or convicted individual is directly contributing to [mitigate] the harm caused," Mr. MacKay said. Crime costs Canada $100-billion a year, of which more than 80 per cent is borne by crime victims, he added.
Judges no longer have discretion to waive the charge for impoverished offenders.
Some judges have refused to impose it in the cases of homeless or addicted people living on social benefits. Others have evaded it by giving offenders decades to pay. One judge ruled it unconstitutional.
The surcharge is $100 for a minor crime (summary offence) and $200 for a more serious one (indictable offence), or 30 per cent of any fine imposed by a judge. Some judges have imposed fines of $5 or $10, to keep the surcharge to $1.50 or $3.
Bill Trudell, head of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, called the attempt to make criminals contribute to the costs of the victims' bill of rights a "politically transparent piece of marketing." He said if the government was serious about victims' rights, it would have sat down with the provinces to create better-funded services.
"They should tell us how much it's going to cost. Why should it be such a big secret?" He suggested they don't know what the victims' rights bill will cost because they don't know how it will work.
Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, said the bill of rights is "window-dressing" that does nothing more than standardize across the country rights already protected in an Ontario bill of victims' rights, and similar protections in other provinces.
Mr. Moustacalis said the problem with the Victim Fine Surcharge is that large numbers of offenders are poor, and when they don't pay the surcharge, the police must track them down so offenders are informed of a court hearing to determine if they should go to jail for not paying, all of which costs the system much more money than the surcharge would collect.