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Letter to Minister Bill Blair on the cancellation of all observer attendance at hearings due to the pandemic

 

March 20, 2020

BY EMAIL

The Honourable Bill Blair
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
269 Laurier Avenue West
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0P8

Cc  The Honourable David Lametti, P.C., Q.C., Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

 

Dear Minister Blair,


As Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, an important part of my mandate is to identify systemic issues that negatively affect victims and survivors of crime, and recommend ways that the federal government can make its laws, policies and programs more responsive to their needs.

I was informed this week that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Parole Board Canada has cancelled all observer attendance at its hearings until further notice. While this is a temporary measure and consistent with Correctional Services Canada suspending all visitors to institutions, victims of crime are negatively impacted. My Office has since received a number of complaints from victims and stakeholders across Canada.

While I understand precautions must be taken during this public health crisis, victims of crime are not merely members of the public or general observers to the process.  Victims have a right to participate and convey their views under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights. This Act of Parliament is quasi-constitutional and one of a few Acts that take primacy over all other Acts (past and future). Thus, it is particularly important to make efforts to accommodate victims/survivors, and also the right thing to do given the harm they have personally suffered to their bodily integrity, overall well being and peace of mind. 

My understanding is that victims are not being offered accommodations like the use of video conferencing during this time.  This technology could be used to allow victims to read a Victim Statement to the Board and to observe the proceedings. If the Board will be conducting hearings this way and offenders will be participating in hearings through video conference, victims should also be afforded this option during the pandemic.

The PBC’s website indicates ‘’Victims will continue to receive all legislated information that they are entitled to’’ and ‘’If a victim has provided an impact statement, it will be considered by Board members in their decision-making.’’ Being told that the Board will read their statement is very different than being physically present to read it and observing the impact of one’s statement on the Board and the offender. Victims also benefit from seeing how the offender responds to the questioning of the Board members when they are present. Attending a hearing provides victims with some sense of control after it has been taken away from them through acts of violence.

In the interest of public safety and fair decision-making processes, victims’ voices and concerns should be heard and weighed as an integral part of the Board’s decision. Otherwise, the public will lose confidence in a process that is closed and appears less than transparent.

A meeting is scheduled for March 23 with Trevor Bhupsingh, A/ADM, but given the urgency of this matter to my stakeholders, I could no longer wait to address it. I hope you agree how important it is to work collaboratively to respect victims’ rights in the federal corrections and conditional release process. I look forward to your response. 


Sincerely,


Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime/l'Ombudsman fédérale des victimes d'actes criminels