Conservative’s victims’ rights bill out of touch with real needs of justice system

Posted on April 5, 2014 in Child & Family Policy Context – Full Comment
April 4, 2014.   Christie Blatchford

Crime victims must be heard? The justice system must be rebalanced in their favour? The rights of criminals have had too much attention? Are you freaking kidding me?

This is what Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this week, in sonorous tones and to widespread approval for who dares speak against crime victims, as their government introduced Bill C-32, or the Victims Bill of Rights Act.

Better they had called it the Duplication of Effort Act.

All provinces and territories already have their own legislation protecting victims, typically a victims of crime act and usually providing for victim and witness services, a justice collection agency that funds victims who have suffered financial loss or victims’ programs or both, and 24-7 phone lines and the like.

Sometimes these acts incorporate a victims bill of rights, but at least two provinces, Ontario and Manitoba, have their own separate Victims Bill of Rights, in Ontario’s case, one that dates back to 1996.

Victims, and their illegitimate sister, witnesses, are a growth area of government, not of course that it can’t balloon more.

In 2011-12, Alberta spent $28,056,002 on victims. Ontario’s attorney-general’s ministry says on its website it has directed $757-million to victim services since 2003 and was earmarking another $120-million for 2010-11 (the most recent report available online). Ontario has victim-witness offices in 62 areas; Manitoba’s unit has 50 staff; Newfoundland and Labrador have 11 regional offices, etc.

Best of all, the federal government already has the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, an independent office, if an office funded by Mr. MacKay’s ministry can be called independent, and set up seven years ago; in 2011-12, its budget was a bit more than $1-million.

Little wonder the ombudsman, Sue O’Sullivan, praised the new bill. Even victims and groups who had muted criticisms (it didn’t go far enough) agreed it was a smashing start.

It was the perfect completion of the circle this entire exercise has been: Mr. MacKay “consulted” victims and their advocacy groups and heard their pain; the government brought in the bill; the advocacy groups cheered.

In other words, the government called the converted to a meeting, preached to them, and emerged with an invigorated pastoral message.

In any case, beyond the redundancy of services and money, there is this.

I would harbour a guess that I’m in Canadian courtrooms a great deal more often than either Mr. MacKay or the Prime Minister, which is to say, daily.

It is quite true that 25 years ago, the justice system paid little attention to victims; sometimes, families weren’t even properly informed about when the bad guy who had killed or hurt their child was going to be in court.

But the world has shifted 180 degrees since then.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a victim of crime in court who wasn’t coddled through every step of the process, who wasn’t accompanied by a professional soother, as I call them (these are the workers, mostly women, who go to court with victims or survivors and who for all their tenderness toward their charges, are pitbullian to everyone else), who didn’t have a front-row seat reserved for them and every supportive friend and relative who tagged along, and who didn’t give a victim’s impact statement that probably broke all the rules. (These are supposed to be written in neutral language and avoid personal insults to the bad guy; mostly, now, that’s all they are.)

Victims, and their illegitimate sister, witnesses, are a growth area of government

A criminal trial is meant to be a contest between the state and the accused, period, and while the new bill doesn’t immediately change that, its spirit is to render the victim a much more significant player.

Its emphasis on victim and witness privacy is also troubling.

In the past year, I covered a sexual-assault trial where every adult in the case, purported victim and key witness both, had a publication ban on her identity — except the poor accused saps, men, who by the way were acquitted.

At the time, I saw the case as an anomaly, a rare bird.

But the diminishment of the rights of both the accused and the convicted — victims will now have a say, for instance, in where a prisoner may or may not live when released — coupled with the enhancement of victims’ rights, and the witnesses’, may see that sort of case become more common.

The bill also expands the use of impact statements to include “community impact statements,” whatever the heck they are.

The bill doesn’t explain it beyond saying that “an individual” may speak about the harm or loss suffered by a community. You know all those “neighbourhood in terror” stories we in my business publish? Well now, perhaps, the head of the local ratepayers’ group can address the court as to the suffering of tout la gang.

The government called the converted to a meeting, preached to them, and emerged with an invigorated pastoral message

Oh, and the community type is allowed to have “a support person” with him, and he can also submit “a drawing, poem or letter” to the court.

There are genuine problems with the justice system. Delay is a huge one; virtually every case I’ve covered in the past two weeks, from murder to libel to a tax matter, dates back to 2010 or 2011.

Lack of public accessibility is another; the system is secretive at worst, opaque at best. I asked for a copy of a document in one court recently and the judge agreed, but remarked that it mustn’t become a habit. And in just about every one of those courtrooms, like the lunatic I’ve become, I’ve had to stand up and ask the judge to ask the lawyers and witnesses to speak up because no one can hear them.

Why is that? Because in Ontario at least, courtrooms don’t have microphones, or none that work anyway.

If Mr. MacKay and the PM want to fix the system, they can spend some money on courtrooms and courthouses and infrastructure improvements.

Oh, one last thing: The justice system was never over-interested in the rights of criminals. It was interested in protecting the rights of those accused of crime. I would have thought the Justice Minister and the Prime Minister knew the difference.

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