moved that Bill C-32, An Act to enact the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights and to amend certain Acts, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to be here with my colleagues this cold February day to speak about Bill C-32, the victims bill of rights act, and to enact this bill, which I believe will truly be transformative in improving rights for victims within our criminal justice system. This will be a quantum leap forward for victims and their families and the justice system at large.
Many individuals in this place have worked tirelessly in our justice system. This is probably, in my estimation, one of the most non-partisan bills we will see in the life of this Parliament. I am particularly proud to see the amount of effort that has been put forward in the drafting and preparation of the bill. I had the good pleasure to work with many people in my own justice department and across the country and to, most personally, hear from victims, to hear their stories, which have very much informed the bill.
It has been a top priority of our government to put victims at the very epicentre of our justice system. I left the crown prosecution service of Nova Scotia almost 18 years ago. It is a particularly proud moment to see the bill come to fruition after a great deal of effort and input from many within our justice system. The contributions of those individuals is reflected in this system that will benefit greatly from their insights.
Since 2006 our government has designated more than $120 million to give victims a more effective voice and role in our justice and correctional systems. We understand the importance of this investment and the difference it can make in the lives of many, as will this legislation.
However, we also understand that the time has come to take a different approach to meeting the needs of victims of crime in Canada—an approach that recognizes victims’ needs through clearly defined and enforceable rights. Last year, we promised to do just that by entrenching victims’ rights into a single law at the federal level. Now we are delivering on that promise with Bill C-32.
I cannot overstate the significance of this piece of legislation. The Canadian victims bill of rights would explicitly enshrine victims rights in federal legislation for the first time in our country's history. Victims would enjoy rights to information, protection, participation, and in many cases, restitution. All of those rights would be enforceable through a remedy scheme. This is the first thing Bill C-32 would accomplish.
The bill would also amend other legislation, such as the Criminal Code and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, and bring victims' rights to life. This is indeed a watershed moment for Canadian victims of crime.
I am not only proud of what we have included in the victims bill of rights but of the way the bill was developed. When we promised to entrench rights for victims of crime, we knew that we would hear directly from victims to ensure that the bill would truly respond to their concerns.
After being given the honour to serve as the federal Minister of Justice, within weeks I set out, in that first year, to travel to every province and territory to hear directly from Canadians and participants in our justice system.
During the in-person consultations and the online consultations, we heard from more than 500 individuals and organizations. It was instructive, informative, and also emotional at times to hear the personal pain that had been endured by many in our country.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights also heard meaningful evidence from victims of crime, advocates, provincial and territorial officials, and those who work on the front lines of our justice system. In particular, the honest and open accounts from victims of crime about their difficulties and the heartbreak they have endured in our system was particularly poignant.
Lianna McDonald, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, who I saw just last week in Winnipeg, summed up these accounts from victims when she said:
What we heard loud and clear is that every victim needs a voice and every victim needs to count. We see this bill as an important step towards ensuring that victims not only obtain the information and support they need but also are able to participate in the justice system in a meaningful way that respects their dignity throughout the process.
Our government believes that every victim deserves to be supported.
For that reason, the Canadian victims bill of rights would include a broad definition of victim that includes an individual who has suffered physical or emotional harm, property damage or economic loss as a result of the commission or alleged commission of an offence.
This definition recognizes that a person may be a victim even when an offence has not been committed against them personally.
The bill would also enable individuals to act on behalf of victims who are deceased or incapable of exercising their rights.
The bill would extend rights to victims of crime at every stage of our criminal justice process: during the investigation and prosecution of an offence, during the corrections process, during the conditional release process or parole, and in proceedings in the courts or before review boards for an accused found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder or who is unfit to stand trial. However, the bill would also provide that those rights could not be applied so as to interfere with police or prosecutorial discretion and would have to be reasonable in the circumstances.
There is very much an emphasis here to strike a balance to ensure that we are giving victims a voice and a role but are not creating delays or adding to the cost of the criminal justice process. This would be counterintuitive, and many victims, I recall, emphasized in their submissions that this was the last thing they wanted to see happen. Further delay, I would suggest, would further victimize individuals in many cases.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights heard evidence about the importance of keeping victims well informed and about the need to ensure that basic information is provided to victims and their loved ones. This was identified as being of utmost importance. One can understand that these processes and the information needed that impacts directly on people's lives sometimes, unwittingly, does not make it into their hands at the proper time. Victims of crime are often looking for this general information about the process, and therefore their role in the process. Nothing is more fundamental, I would suggest. Nothing impacts them more directly than being able to have that information to make decisions for themselves and their loved ones. However, what they really want is specific information about their case and the decisions made by justice professionals as the case moves forward. Unfortunately, all too often, victims are left disappointed with the information made available to them. This is something Bill C-32 seeks to correct.
The information that is needed and the right to information about the justice system, the programs and services available to them, and the complaint procedures available to them if these rights are denied or infringed is deeply ensconced in the bill. It would give victims access to more specific information about the criminal investigation process, and often the accused.
I note that several witnesses appeared before the standing committee on the issue of information about plea arrangements. Under Bill C-32, judges would be required to specifically ask a prosecutor if reasonable steps had been taken to inform the victim of a plea arrangement in prosecutions involving murder or serious bodily harm or where the victim so requested it in prosecutions of indictable offences where the penalty was five years or more.
I believe that we have found the right balance with this provision that would allow victims to be informed of the agreement at a critical moment without unduly burdening crown prosecutors and without compromising the accused's right to freely enter into a plea arrangement.
Victim safety was also mentioned extensively throughout the process of consultation. We heard testimony before the standing committee that victims of sexual assault, in particular, and victims of human trafficking expressed particular concern about their physical safety during the criminal justice process.
I know that my friend and colleague from Winnipeg, who has made this her life's work, also expressed serious concerns about the physical safety of witnesses throughout the process. My friend, the former minister of veterans affairs and now the Associate Minister of National Defence, spent his entire working life as a police officer prior coming here. I had the good fortune of having his counsel in the preparation of this bill as well.
It is important to keep that information flowing from the time of investigation to trial or preliminary to sentencing and often to parole hearings. This contact, often afforded by the police and the prosecution services, has also been greatly improved by victims services in our country. I must say that this has been one of the single greatest insertions of individuals and professionals dedicated solely to supporting victims in the process.
I want to say firmly, on the record, that this bill does not in any way suggest that these many professionals in our country working in the justice system are not doing their job. This is simply an effort to codify and bring about common practices across the country, in provinces and territories, to buttress our commitment to supporting victims and to see that we are transferring, in some cases, best practices through this bill by ensconcing these rights for victims.
This bill recognizes the importance of protecting victims from further harm, while they participate in the justice system. It would provide victims with the right to have their privacy and security considered by the appropriate authorities in the criminal justice system and the right to protection from intimidation and retaliation, including the right to apply for testimonial aids and to have their identity protected from public disclosure.
Currently there are a number of provisions in criminal law to prevent or to respond directly to the harms suffered by victims. The creation of these new rights would build on a strong foundation and on Canada's positive international reputation for the treatment of vulnerable persons, including their treatment in courtrooms.
Specifically, I am aware of some of the expressed concerns with respect to proposed section 486.31 of the Criminal Code. This section would add another tool to the inventory of testimonial aids and other protections for victims and witnesses that currently exist in the Criminal Code. This new tool in proposed section 486.31 would create discretionary schemes to allow or require a judge to determine that an order made under this section was in the interest of the proper administration of justice. The judge would then consider a number of factors when considering whether to make such an order, such as a fair trial, the interests of the witness in question, and societal interests related to the proper functioning of our justice system. What this would mean, in essence, would be greater access to those testimonial aids.
Just to edify this issue, it could be a screen that is sometimes used for a child witness or an individual who feels particularly vulnerable to cross-examination. Sometimes there are situations where a person is unrepresented and he or she is in a position to come face to face with a victim who feels absolutely overwhelmed. We now also use video testimony from time to time.
I would come back to the point of improvements we have seen well in advance of what we hope to accomplish through this bill, such as child and youth advocacy centres, such as the one in Toronto known as Boost, the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary, and 24 others now functioning, with plans for more to come. There are outstanding improvements in the wraparound service, protection, and support of young victims and witnesses who wind up in our criminal justice system.
Something as basic as allowing children to take a pet into the courtroom or the interview process to calm that experience and allow them to feel that they are in a safe place are leaps and bounds in the area of the compassionate type of support we are now offering young victims and witnesses in our system. This is in keeping with some of these improvements.
Never losing sight of the right to a fair trial that the accused must have, and the fundamental components that exist in our process in that regard, the courts have said, and I agree, that these rights are not absolute. A criminal trial must acknowledge and accommodate, to the greatest extent possible, other important societal interests, such as protecting those who agree to testify as witnesses.
I would pause here to mention that in the new anti-terrorism bill, there are provisions as well recognizing the need to protect witnesses, in some cases, because of special circumstances. We see this in organized crime trials and trials where spouses find themselves particularly vulnerable to violence or threats of violence. These protective elements are extremely important, without upsetting that right to a fair and free trial.
Coming back to some of the consultations, we heard from many people about the importance of finding ways for victims to be more meaningfully involved in the process. Some stakeholders expressed concerns that increasing the involvement of victims had the potential to reduce effectiveness and efficiencies of the process, that it would create delays or increased cost. These are important considerations, to be sure. However, the standing committee heard from several witnesses who explained very eloquently how important it is to be meaningfully considered in the decisions made by police, prosecutors, and other criminal law professionals. This breeds confidence in our system; it breeds participation, and a willingness to participate.
We are having trouble sometimes even assembling a panel of jurors because of a disconnect that some are feeling from our justice system. We have to be very conscious of that. The bill, I believe, answers some of those questions when it comes to increased public confidence.
Victims clearly indicated that they are not seeking a veto. I remember some years ago, while in opposition, there was a joint report created by the justice committee, called “Victims' Rights: A Voice, Not a Veto”. We drew heavily from that report, going back into the annals of this place and looking at some of the previous recommendations.
Victims simply want to know that a decision was made with clear understanding of their perspective as a victim, and that they had the opportunity to explain their position to important decision-makers. As Minister of Justice, I have no doubt that the many professionals in our justice system already meet, and continue to meet every day, those requirements and requests for accountability and transparency from victims.
The reforms proposed in Bill C-32 recognize the impact of crime on the lives of victims and are a clear effort to give them a voice in what is often a complicated, difficult, and stressful process. Victims of crime have told us that they are overwhelmingly supportive of the improvements to the victim and community impact statement provisions found in the Criminal Code. One such improvement is the creation of mandatory victim and community impact statement forms, again, to bring about a uniform approach across the country.
Through this process, we have also had the opportunity to ensure that victims are able to speak directly to the judiciary, to the court, and ensure that they have a true understanding of the impact that crime has had on them and their families. The bill also aims to give victims more choice and control over their involvement in the process, which can be stressful and certainly emotional. Participation and choice, I would suggest, are rights that have to be respected and rights that do exist, whether the victim chooses to exercise them or not. Choice equals respect in the bill.
The proposed right to participation also seeks to strengthen approaches that provide opportunities for victims to actively participate, to be more effective in their ability to relay their wishes, their concerns, to police, crown prosecutors, and judges, and to give victims this effective voice to let them know that their voice matters, that it is heard, that it is meaningful.
During consultations, and in the evidence before the standing committee, victims spoke of the financial impact of crime. This can include economic costs, loss of employment, costs of treatment, and mental and physical health costs. Victims are very concerned about the financial burden that results from victimization and that places them in real hardship.
Following a traumatic event, victims are often unable to work, unable to deal with the daily grind that is all around them, and yet they face significant expenses to continue attending court proceedings or receive counselling.
It may surprise some, and I certainly was taken aback by this figure, that the Justice Department estimates that the tangible and intangible social and economic costs of Criminal Code offences in Canada are approaching approximately $100 billion annually, of which 85% of the costs are borne by victims alone.
The bill aims specifically at helping to alleviate the financial burden of crime when it comes to the load that is carried by our victims in the system. The proposal would enshrine a victim's right to have the court consider making a restitution order, in every case, rather than creating an absolute right to a restitution order.
Once again, I believe that we have found a measured and balanced response to the needs for victims with respect to the fundamental principles that underpin our justice system.
The courts are not often the appropriate forum for awarding damage for pain and suffering or for determining complicated issues regarding the outcome of an award, but restitution can be made and ordered when the value of the loss or damage is easily calculable. This is not in dispute. On the other hand, we are clarifying that the offender's ability to pay is only one factor to be considered when a judge is determining whether a restitution order should be made.
In conclusion, I want to thank the many individuals who have put in tremendous time and effort in the preparation and drafting of this bill. They are people like Carole Morency, of the Department of Justice; Dale Sutherland, and many other victims whom we heard from throughout our consultations, and there were many. There were individuals like Priscilla de Villiers, who has made this her life's work, and people from MADD Canada. I mentioned Sheldon Kennedy earlier, and those who work in the child advocacy centres.
I believe that this is a leap forward, and something that all members can and should support. I am grateful to the members of the justice committee, who have also embraced this important task of improving the lives of victims and easing their burden. I would urge all members to support this important legislation.