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Letter to Minister Bill Blair related to strengthening victims' rights to information, participation and protection in the Canadian criminal justice system

December 5, 2019

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


Re: Strengthening Victims' Rights to information, participation and protection in the Canadian criminal justice system

 

Dear Minister Blair,


Let me begin by offering warm congratulations to you on your appointment as Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. I look forward to meeting with you in the near future to discuss working together to better meet the needs of victims of crime.


For your information, this letter was sent to your predecessor on August 8, 2019, but he did not have the opportunity to respond so we are resending it to you as the new Minister. An important part of my mandate as the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime is identifying systemic issues that negatively impact victims of crime, and recommending ways that the federal government can make its laws, policies and programs more responsive to the needs of victims and survivors in Canada. I was pleased to learn that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) launched a new Communications and Outreach Strategy to enhance its engagement with victims of federal offenders during National Victims and Survivors of Crime Week 2019. While I applaud CSC’s efforts in launching such a strategy, I believe federal corrections should proactively register victims so that those who wish to do so can access information, raise safety concerns, and participate more fully.


Currently, victims must self-register with either CSC or the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) to receive information related to the incarceration and conditional release of the federal offender who harmed them. According to the 2017 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview, there are presently more than 23,000 offenders under the responsibility of CSC, yet there are only 8,303 victims registered to receive information. Self-registration appears to be problematic, as the number of registered victims in comparison to offenders is disproportionately low.


It is well established in literature that when trauma occurs, it is difficult to comprehend or retain information. In the immediate aftermath of a crime, or even years following a conviction at trial, victims may be in such a state of anxiety or distress that they cannot fully understand or absorb information provided to them by officials. To expect them to comprehend the implications of registering at this time is unfair. In addition, because criminal justice personnel such as victim services, police, and Crowns are not required to inform victims about registration when a federal sentence is imposed, federal corrections and parole authorities rely on victims being informed by third parties and good will. Third party information provision does not appear to be effective, as we know that most victims do not register. British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario now have check boxes on forms to seek consent of the victim to share the personal information collected in the provincial system with federal corrections and parole. While this is a step in the right direction, it is important to note that victims may still not be in a state of mind to provide fully informed consent following the completing of a trial process given the emotional toll of this process. A criminal court proceeding can easily trigger traumatic responses, and victims may not be able to appreciate the importance of registration even at this time. 


The inability to proactively register victims is also of particular concern in relation to victims’ safety and sense of security. If, for example, an offender were released into the community where the victim lives, as is often the case, a victim who is not registered will not be informed about that release. The victim is at risk of re-victimization and re-traumatization in the event that they should come upon the offender without notice and preparation. It also means that the victim is deprived of their right to request the offender not be released in their community, or to request that restrictions be placed on the offender with regard to contact with the victim and their family.


Since my appointment in October 2018, I have heard repeated concerns from victims about the lack of automatic or proactive registration when there is a federal sentence imposed in their case. This issue arose again when I met with the Victims’ Advisory Council (VAC) Chairs in Fredericton on May 28, 2019. The VAC Chairs proposed the following solution, which I support: The automatic or proactive registration of victims when a federal sentence is imposed, with an opt-out provision to provide victims and survivors with the personal agency to decide whether registration is in their best interest. I believe this is the most trauma-informed, strengths-based and victim-centred solution to address the significant lack of victim participation in federal corrections and parole that exists due to the requirement to self-register.


In my recommendations below, I believe my Office offers a solution to address privacy concerns raised relating to proactive/automatic registration while also meeting the rights of victims to information, protection and participation under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR). Specifically, my recommendations are:


  1. To ensure the equitable treatment of federal victims across regions, Public Safety Canada, through the Correctional Services Canada, immediately develop enhanced Memoranda of Understanding with all provincial/territorial Attorneys General and Ministers of Justice to share victim information. Victims’ personal contact information should be automatically shared with federal corrections authorities upon the imposition of sentences of two years or longer (including life sentences) in federal correctional institutions, just as the offender’s file follows them into the federal system upon conviction.  

  2. Upon receipt of contact information from provincial and territorial authorities, federal corrections authorities begin the automatic registration process by proactively contacting victims to inform them about their rights and to either acquire consent to finalize registration process or to obtain the victim’s decision to opt out. Some victims may choose not to receive information about the offender who harmed them, which is their right.

  3. Where the victim does consent to federal registration to receive information about the offender who harmed them, corrections authorities will provide ongoing information to victims in the format they desire and in simple language.

  4. Federal corrections and parole authorities be required to keep a record of the notification of registration and all responses consenting to opt in or opt out (as victims could potentially opt back in later on) and adopt standardized procedures for interacting with victims.

I recognize there may still be gaps in terms of reaching all victims in a case, as not all victims are formally involved in the trial as witnesses nor choose to submit victim impact statements. However, I do believe that automatic or proactive registration when the outcome of a trial is a federal sentence will lead to fewer victims being unaware and uninformed of their rights to register to receive information, protection and to participate in the federal correctional system. Victims have clear statutory rights at the federal level, and it should not be up to persons who have suffered trauma, violence and other significant losses to know to self-register in order to exercise their rights.


I look forward to working with you on this matter, as I know you appreciate the importance of enhancing cross-sector collaboration, coordination, partnerships, and multi-disciplinary responses to better support victims.

 

Sincerely,

 

Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

 

Cc  The Honourable David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
Ms. Anne Kelly, Commissioner, Correctional Services Canada
Ms. Jennifer Oades, Chairperson, Parole Board of Canada
Ms. Gina Wilson, Deputy Minister, Public Safety Canada