The Victim’s Rights movement in Canada came about due to concerns that our courts were putting too much emphasis on the rights of criminals, resulting in inadequate prosecution and sentencing. The rights of the accused and convicted are guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Conversely, victim’s rights were virtually non-existent in Canadian law until 1996 when the Victim’s Bill of Rights, a motion brought forward by Reform MP Randy White, was passed.
The passage of this bill brought victims the right to receive information about criminal proceedings and the right to present a victim’s impact statement in court.
As important as this Bill of Rights has been in alleviating the difficulty victims have dealing with our criminal justice system, there is still work to be done.
“The most important victim’s right is the right to have justice done by the state on his or her behalf.”
If investigations and judiciary proceedings consistently netted appropriate convictions and meaningful sentences, victims would likely feel less concern if they were not as informed as they could have been throughout the process. In fact, strong confidence that justice will be served would allow victims to remove themselves somewhat from the legal proceedings and focus instead on healing and moving on.
Similarly, if individuals had assurance that plea-bargaining would only be used in cases of utmost necessity (i.e. a high degree of certainty that a conviction would otherwise not be reached) they might not feel as wronged if their particular case fell into that exception. Victims have every right to feel outrage when plea bargaining is used simply to cut costs and streamline proceedings.
At the same time, consider police investigations. If the public had reason to believe that our police were properly equipped to investigate and compile evidence in such a manner that it would not be needlessly thrown out in later proceedings, the exceptional case of human error or bad luck botching an investigation would not create the same level of outcry that an under-funded system does.
If victims felt that the courts were firmly on the side of truth and justice, witnesses would endure necessary cross examination with few complaints.
If parole boards acted primarily on behalf of the public and were accountable to those they served, victims would be less inclined to demand involvement in proceedings.
In very plain terms, if our system worked, we would let it work. Only a high degree of confidence in our justice system would bring about the peace of mind necessary to allow our system to function unquestioned.
The most important victim’s right is the right to have justice done by the state on his or her behalf. The small victories won by the victim rights movement in recent history will prove to be a disappointment if the real problems with our justice system are not remedied.
In 1995 our courts were instructed by law to consider any Victim Impact Statements submitted when determining sentences. (Victim Impact Statements were officially introduced by law in 1988, although the wording prior to 1995 only stated that judges “could” consider these statements)
Victim impact statements are statements prepared by crime victims explaining the various effects the crime committed has had on their physical, financial, or emotional well-being. These statements can be presented to the judge in writing, or read aloud in court by the victim. They are introduced only after a conviction has been reached.
In spite of the fact that Victim Impact Statements have become a routine part of court proceedings, sentencing as a whole has become even more lenient. The use of conditional sentencing has increased yearly since 1995 and the median duration of sentences has continued to decrease.
To simply be heard in court was not all the proponents of Victim Impact Statements were after. Rather, victims and their families believed that if judges could see firsthand the pain crime had caused in their lives, judges would give more consideration to the punitive aspect of sentencing. Sadly, this has not happened.
Judges and prosecutors have said that victims should not look for closure in a courtroom. At the same time, those who administer criminal justice need to remember why individuals forfeited the right to seek retribution for crime. Not because retribution is unjust, but because individual retribution is often flawed and unduly measured. Modern civilization accepts that the state is best able to deliver retribution in a way that protects the basic rights of each citizen. The state is carrying out the task of administering criminal justice on behalf of all society. Victims have a right to see justice done. That is why we fund our criminal justice system and empower it to carry out its duties.
Victim’s rights go deeper than just the right to information or the right to have a voice in court. The most important right of any victim is to have the justice system seek justice on his or her behalf. Acknowledgement of this right begins with politicians sending a message from the top that justice for victims should be one of the foremost concerns of all who serve in our courts, our probation boards and our correctional facilities.
Resources for Victims of Crime: