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Justice Minister Peter MacKay answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 1, 2014.

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government will introduce a crime victims' bill of rights in Parliament on Thursday, promising it will transform the way victims are treated by the justice system.

The bill will put "victims in a better place, their more rightful place, which is at the heart of the system," Justice Minister Peter MacKay promised in the fall. "They're not just another Crown witness. They want a more effective voice." He said the bill would ensure victims have a right to be included throughout the process, "from the time of the offence to the final disposition of the sentence."

Marie Manikis, who teaches law at McGill University, said the bill could be very important or just another statement of vague principles. The key, she said, will be whether it includes a mechanism for victims to enforce their rights to participate in the system. "If it allows them to have standing in court – for example, if their rights are breached, and they can bring motions in court, with their own lawyers – it would change things."

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Defence lawyers say they worry about a time-consuming new layer being added to the process. They say the justice system is designed to be between the state and the offender, with victims playing a limited role – as in victim impact statements, which tell a judge how a crime affected them, but do not give them the right to recommend a sentence. (In the United States, victims can make recommendations on sentences.) Victims groups say they want the justice system "rebalanced" so that victims and offenders have equal rights.

Mr. MacKay, a former prosecutor, told the House of Commons on Wednesday that the government's focus on victims "is in stark contrast to the Liberal Party that under Pierre Trudeau gave convicted murderers more rights," such as the faint-hope clause, which allowed convicted murderers to apply for early parole. That clause was repealed by the Conservative government, but "the NDP voted against repealing that awful law," he said.

"The fact is, the Conservative Party of Canada is the only party in the House that puts the rights of victims ahead of the rights of the convicted."

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