Crime victims would have their rights in the justice system guaranteed by law, and enforceable through a complaints process within federal government offices, under the proposed Canadian Victims Bill of Rights introduced in Parliament by the Conservative government on Thursday.
But the bill is as notable for what it does not do as what it does. Victims groups had called for new rights for victims to participate directly in the justice system, and to enforce those rights. The bill falls short of what they asked for, some victims advocates said Thursday.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay promised in the fall that the bill of rights would put victims "at the heart" of the justice system, and by that measure, the bill is a failure, said Steve Sullivan, executive director of Ottawa Victim Services, and the country's former victims ombudsman. "It falls really short of that promise," he said in an interview.
The bill is key to the Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda. In more than 30 crime bills since 2006, the government has touted its desire to tilt the country away from accused rights and toward the protection of victims. But the government appears to have been mindful of concerns in the legal community – among prosecutors as well as defence lawyers – that an already overburdened system could become even more bogged down if victims were given greater rights in court.
"I think we've found a balance of making sure victims have this effective voice, but not creating additional burdens and complications," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. He and his wife Laureen, along with Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, attended the launch of the bill at a seniors centre in Mississauga, Ont.
The bill does not give victims the power to complain to a court that their rights were ignored, Mr. Sullivan noted. It does not give them the right to sue anyone for a violation of their rights. It does not give them the right to directly address a court, in writing or in person, on issues that affect them, such as plea bargains.
The bill is, however, also a grab bag of specific rights. Victims would have the right to request that an accused in a stalking or sex assault case not be permitted to cross-examine them personally. Victims under 18 could make that same request in any case. A judge would be required to accept the request. And victims under 18 would have the right to a publication ban on their name, if they request it. Currently, that right exists only if they are victims of youth crime. And the victims' rights bill also changes the Canada Evidence Act to say that any witness could be compelled to testify against a spouse.
"We suggested they go further," said Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, a non-governmental agency created in 1993 by the Canadian Police Association. She pointed to Britain, where victims can ask an independent agency to review a prosecutor's decision to drop charges against an accused. In the United States, victims can file an action in court if, for instance, their right to make a victim impact statement or express a view on a plea bargain has been overlooked.
In the contentious area of plea bargains, the Canadian bill of rights sets out only to ensure victims are informed, so they don't show up in court expecting a trial.
As for complaints to provincial government bureaucrats – such as the prosecutors who deal with most of the country's criminal cases – provinces would deal with complaints under systems they already have in place, such as an ombudsman's office. The federal government promised to help with any costs to bolster those complaint mechanisms.
The bill set out rights in four major areas – information, protection, participation and restitution.
With the exception of restitution, those rights were set out in the Canadian Statement of Basic Principles accepted by the federal and provincial governments in 2003 and 1985. The new bill also would add some wrinkles: Victims would have the right to receive up-to-date photos of offenders when they are released from prison. Victims would have wider rights to request testimonial aids (such as a screen to testify behind). Parole boards could require offenders not to live near a victim.
Benjamin Perrin, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy, said some of the bill's provisions could have a dramatic impact on victim rights, but added that he was disappointed that the bill specifically denies victims the right to be observers at judicial proceedings.
William Trudell, who heads the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, said the bill "raises expectations, to be dashed. Victims are being used."