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Letter addressed to Provincial and Territorial Attorney Generals on Seeking Support to Improve Victim’s Rights in the Administration of Justice

June 14, 2021


Attn: Provincial/Territorial Attorneys General
Cc: The Honourable David Lametti, P.C., Q.C., Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada


Dear Ministers,


As Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, an important part of my mandate is to increase awareness of the needs and concerns of victims of crime, and to promote fair and equitable treatment for all victims and survivors of crime across Canada. 

Given that the federal government and provincial/territorial governments (PTs) share responsibility for responding to victims of crime in Canada, I am writing to you as Attorney General, and to your PT colleagues, to seek your support in building consensus towards strengthening the rights of victims and survivors of crime in the administration of justice.

Of key concern to me is the fact that victims of crime report common complaints to my Office, no matter which jurisdiction they live in. Their lived experiences have commonalities and they report being disbelieved, being dismissed or disrespected when they come forward to seek justice and accountability. I believe that we must work together to address and respond to common issues and that coordination among jurisdictions is essential to achieve fairness and equity for victims.

I draw your attention to the Progress Report on the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR) https://victimsfirst.gc.ca/res/pub/PRCVBR-RECCDV/index.html published by my Office in 2020. The report examines the implementation of the legislation in the five years since it came into force and makes recommendations on how to strengthen respect for victims’ rights based on the common complaints and lived experiences of victims across all jurisdictions. We hope you will agree that there is an urgent need to address the commonly voiced complaints of victims as they access justice and participate in the justice proceedings, some of which are described below.

a) Information: The most common complaint received by my Office from victims and survivors of crime across Canada is that they often do not have access to the information they need and to which they are entitled by law. Across all jurisdictions in Canada, victims report not being kept informed of:

  • the outcome of the police investigation;
  • interim release of the accused;
  • the date and timing of hearings in their case including Review Board or parole hearings;
  • how to seek restitution;
  • how to have their voice heard and actively participate in the justice process; and
  • the availability of services and support, including restorative justice.

I ask you to remove the burden from those harmed by crime and violence to ask for information in their case. It is critical that all criminal justice officials be directed to inform victims of their statutory rights under the CVBR proactively.

I also recommend the development a province-wide or territorial-wide Victims’ Rights wallet card for police officers to provide to victims at their first encounter. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) will soon roll out a card nationally that provides basic information to victims about their rights, together with contact information for victim service agencies. This card is a recommendation of our Progress Report because information is empowering and without it, victims cannot assert the other rights provided to them in law. In addition to police, prosecutors, Review Boards, corrections officials and victim service agencies could also share these cards with victims to ensure they have the information they need at each stage.

Adopting a Canada-wide proactive approach to informing victims of their rights in law will ensure that criminal justice professionals meet their obligations to victims and impacted survivors and family members know their rights. The onus must be removed from traumatized, marginalized, racialized or oppressed citizens to know to request such information from criminal justice authorities. It is simply unfair and impedes access to justice.

b) Collection and reporting of data: More information must be made publicly available about how victims’ statutory rights are delivered in the administration of justice. The data that is collected and reported vary widely across institutions and jurisdictions and are largely not comparable.

As most criminal trials are conducted in PT courts, courts are an ideal point for data collection, but we also need more data related to policing agencies, Mental Health Review Boards and corrections/parole. Some data are already collected and agencies/institutions must be required to collect data related to the rights enumerated in the CVBR. I recommend adopting a systematic approach common across all jurisdictions, recording identical indicators about victims of crime, with an emphasis on over-represented and targeted populations, such as racialized people, Indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ persons.

c) Participation: Only five PT jurisdictions report to Statistics Canada on how many victim impact statements are introduced in court. These data indicate that relatively few victims choose to participate in this way. We do not know how many victims are informed of their right to make a victim impact statement at sentencing, nor do we know how many victims provide statements and participate in Review Board hearings.

Similarly, we do not know how many victims request and receive testimonial aids, publication bans, or any of the various forms of protection that are available to them. A checklist is an ideal means of tracking all of the rights afforded to victims in the CVBR and to enable reporting on PT compliance with victims’ rights. 

In closing, it is my hope that we can attain consensus across all PTs of the need to recognize and address the common complaints and experiences of victims of crime in accessing justice. We can enhance victims’ experiences positively with a focus on delivering their rights in law. Jurisdictions can implement these relatively minor changes outlined above to existing policies and practices by directing justice officials to take a proactive approach to upholding the legal rights of victims and reporting publicly on how this is achieved.
In doing so, we will address many of the common complaints reported by victims as they access justice and participate in criminal proceedings and perhaps most importantly, we will fulfill our obligations under the CVBR. I would be very pleased to work with you and your colleagues to achieve these goals.

Sincerely,

 

Heidi Illingworth (she/her/elle)
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime/l'Ombudsman fédérale des victimes d'actes criminels



Response from the Honourable Doug Downey, Attorney General of Ontario

Our Reference #: M-2021-9398

Ms. Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Email: heidi.illingworth@ombudsman.gc.ca

Dear Ms. Illingworth:

Thank you for your email regarding improving the experiences of victims and survivors in the justice system.

The Government of Ontario shares your views about the need for equitable treatment of victims and survivors of crime and is committed to strengthening their rights in the administration of justice. We are also committed to working collaboratively with federal, provincial and territorial governments to strengthen the rights of victims and survivors of crime in the administration of justice.
I wish to thank you for drawing my attention to your recent report, and for sharing the most common complaints received by your office from victims and survivors of crime.

As noted in your letter, a key component of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights as well as Ontario’s Victims’ Bill of Rights is the right to information. Ontario is committed to ensuring that victims and survivors of crime have access to investigative, case-related and other information they require in order to meaningfully participate in the justice system and access available services.

In Ontario, the Victims’ Assistance Guideline, developed by the Ministry of the Solicitor General, requires police services, in coordination with the local Crown and the Victim/Witness Assistance Program (VWAP), to establish the timely provision of information to victims. The guideline also requires the police to provide victims with information on available community services and to proactively refer victims to victim services unless the victim specifically declines this assistance.

The Directive on Victims in Ontario’s Crown Prosecution Manual states that Prosecutors must ensure that efforts are made to advise the victim of significant information throughout the criminal court proceeding. The Directive lists examples of key information as well as outlines the obligations of Prosecutors with respect to informing victims about proposed resolutions, their right to prepare a victim impact statement and to request restitution.

The core mandate of VWAP is to provide vulnerable victims and survivors of crime with information to increase their understanding of, and participation in, the criminal court process. This includes information about their rights, their role in the case, the progress of the case, interim releases, key court/hearing dates, case outcomes, as well as referrals to other services available to them. Victim input, needs and concerns are sought at key points during the criminal court process and this information is shared with the Crown prosecutor to ensure that victims have a voice throughout the court process. Victims are also encouraged by Victim Witness Services Workers to participate in the sentencing process by filing a victim impact statement and, if applicable, a statement on restitution, and are provided with assistance to complete such statements if they choose to do so.

In jurisdictions where Indigenous-specific Victim Service (IVS) programs exist, IVS program workers similarly provide information to Indigenous survivors of crime related to their rights and participation in the criminal court process. This includes information about culturally relevant and responsive services and restorative justice programs. We are aware that IVS programs experience barriers in receiving referrals from non-Indigenous justice services and are working to address that significant service gap.

Your report points out the need for referral to restorative justice programs in all appropriate cases. In Ontario, we fund 56 Indigenous Restorative Justice Programs that are designed and delivered by Indigenous communities and organizations in accordance with Indigenous legal principles and processes. The Crown Prosecution Manual directs that a Prosecutor should refer an Indigenous accused person to an Indigenous Restorative Justice Program where it is appropriate and the program is available. In addition, there is collaborative work happening with Indigenous communities, organizations, and various police services to increase pre-charge diversion to these programs in all appropriate cases. These programs make efforts to provide victims with an opportunity to participate voluntarily in the process.

Victims and survivors can register with Ontario’s Victim Support Line to receive information about provincially incarcerated offenders, such as releases from and admissions to custody, unescorted temporary absences, information about an offender at large, and Ontario Parole Board hearing dates and decisions.

I appreciate your providing information about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police information card for victims that will be soon be rolling out. My ministry would be interested in receiving a sample of the information card so that we can further explore whether this is something that could be adapted for use in Ontario.

Ontario would be willing to work with other provinces and territories, in collaboration with the federal government, to explore whether there is a way to achieve more consistency with the reporting of data related to victims’ rights and participation. This may be able to be achieved through the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Victims of Crime.

I note that in several places in your report, you mention the specific needs of Indigenous victims, including women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA persons. Ontario has recently announced its response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls for Justice, available here:

https://www.ontario.ca/page/pathways-safety-ontarios-strategy-response-final-report-national-inquiry-missing-and-murdered#section-7.

In particular, I encourage you to review the justice sector initiatives that are listed, including the information about the Family Information Liaison Unit, the Anti-Human Trafficking Supports and Programs, and the Indigenous Intimate Partner Violence Prevention Programs.

I want to thank you once again for bringing these issues forward. We look forward to collaboration with your office as well as our federal, provincial and territorial colleagues to explore ways to improve experiences for victims and survivors of crime.

Sincerely,

Doug Downey
Attorney General



Response from the Honourable David Eby, Attorney General of British Columbia and Minister Responsible for Housing

 

Dear Heidi Illingworth:

Thank you for your letter of June 14, 2021, regarding victims’ rights in the criminal justice system.

In my role as Attorney General, except in the most extraordinary circumstances I am not involved in individual prosecutions. Instead, the BC Prosecution Service (BCPS) manages cases on behalf of the Attorney General at arm’s length from government.

In your letter, you raise the issue of ensuring that victims are appropriately informed about the cases in which they are involved. The Ministry of Attorney General appreciates the importance of the federal Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR) and the provincial Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and is committed to ensuring that victims receive the information and support they need by taking necessary actions that fall within our mandate.

Regarding these matters, it may assist you to know that the BCPS has a policy that guides Crown Counsel and other administrative personnel in providing timely information to victims, as required under the CVBR and VOCA. This policy, VIC 1 Victims of Crime – Providing Assistance and Information, is publicly available here:
https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/criminal-justice/prosecution-service/crown-counsel-policy-manual/vic-1.pdf

VIC 1 also directs Crown Counsel to take a proactive approach to providing victims with the opportunity to provide a Victim Impact Statement (VIS), as required under VOCA. In the early stages of a prosecution, victims receive a VIS package, which includes the publicly available “Know Your Rights” document (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/criminal-justice/bc-criminal-justice-system/if-victim/publications/know-your-rights.pdf). BCPS staff have access to additional information about CVBR and VOCA, which further assists them in the process of keeping victims properly informed.

A Victim Impact Statement Guide, is translated into nine different languages and publicly available on the BCPS website here:
https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/justice/criminal-justice/bc-prosecution-service/victim-impact-statements

Furthermore, in response to the recommendations of Commissioner Oppal in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, the BCPS independently implemented a policy in 2014 that is specific to vulnerable victims. This policy, VUL 1 – Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses, explicitly recognizes that “All victims and witnesses, regardless of vulnerabilities, should have an equal opportunity to participate in the criminal justice process.” Among other issues, this policy sets out that Crown Counsel should:

• Make reasonable efforts to proactively establish and maintain communication with vulnerable victims and witnesses from the earliest stages of the prosecution, through to its conclusion, and to provide them with timely information about the status of the prosecution;
• Where practicable, work with police, sheriffs, probation officers, or victim services throughout the prosecution process to inform vulnerable victims and witnesses of any supports available within the criminal justice system;
• When available, work with cultural or Indigenous organizations, including those identified by the victim or witness to support vulnerable victims;
• Ensure that any appropriate applications are made to the court for publication bans, testimonial accommodations, or protective orders; and
• Where appropriate, take all reasonable steps to expedite the process, including initiating early resolution discussions or requesting an early trial date.

The BCPS policy VUL 1 is publicly available here:
https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/criminal-justice/prosecution-service/crown-counsel-policy-manual/vul-1.pdf),
Depending on the nature of the case, the BCPS has additional policies to guide Crown Counsels’ approach to victims. These policies include CHI 1 – Children and Vulnerable Youth – Crimes Against (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/criminal-justice/prosecution-service/crown-counsel-policy-manual/chi-1.pdf),
IPV 1 – Intimate Partner Violence (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/criminal-justice/prosecution-service/crown-counsel-policy-manual/ipv-1.pdf),
and SEX 1 – Sexual Offences Against Adults (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/criminal-justice/prosecution-service/crown-counsel-policy-manual/sex-1.pdf.

The Ministry of Attorney General recognizes the role of all sectors within the criminal justice system in respecting and giving effect to victims’ rights as upheld by federal and provincial legislation. Within the different stages of the process, police and corrections also play critical roles in ensuring that victims receive information about their rights. For example, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which oversees policing and public safety, is governed by VOCA in the delivery of a suite of over 400 programs and services mandated to support victims of crime, including through the provision of information, support and referrals, as well as accompaniment and coordination with criminal justice system professionals.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General also directly delivers a range of specialized services and provides information to victims, including the Crime Victim Assistance Program, the Victim Safety Unit, Court Support Programs, the Restitution Program, and the Family Information Liaison Unit. In particular:

• Victim Safety Unit provides registered higher risk victims with safety and notification services and ensures victims are aware of and have access to safety services. Once registered with the Unit, victims and protected parties receive ongoing information while an accused or offender is in the community (on bail or probation) and in custody.

• Restitution Program assists victims of crime who have experienced financial loss and have unpaid restitution orders with information and assistance in collecting restitution. The program encourages offenders to comply with orders, liaises with probation and parole officers and others about unpaid restitution, and gives general information (not legal advice) about civil court processes.

BC Corrections also recognizes that under the CVBR and VOCA, victims have the right to receive information about victim services, the justice system, and status of the investigation, prosecution, and administration of an individual’s sentence.

BC Corrections’ adult probation officers and bail supervisors notify victims throughout the course of supervision to ensure awareness of court order(s) and protective conditions, encourage safety planning, provide information regarding specialized victim services and monitor compliance with protective conditions. Correctional centre staff notify victims about admission to custody, the length of the sentence, changes in custodial status such as transfers to other centres, and release dates. In addition, BC Corrections staff encourage victims to register with the Victim Safety Unit, which provides victims with information about supervision start and end dates, transfers, and releases from custody while an individual is on a court order in the community or in custody.

Please be assured that victims’ rights are taken very seriously, and the Ministry of Attorney General is continually working to ensure that the public interest and victims’ rights are protected within the criminal justice system.

Yours truly,


David Eby, QC
Attorney General and
Minister Responsible for Housing

pc: The Honourable Mike Farnworth