Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak on the motion today which urges the government to direct the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs to draft a victims bill of rights.
The government has continued a trend to be more responsive to victims. The improvements to the justice system, initiated by the federal government, were made without any victims bill of rights. The government took action because it was the right thing to do.
Earlier today we heard numerous examples of specific initiatives to benefit victims of crime. These initiatives go well beyond the principles that would be set out in a victims bill of rights. Actions do speak louder than words.
I support the adoption of a federal declaration on the rights of victims, but I believe there are several factors to consider. I am in favour of a declaration of rights for victims, but I believe we should be speaking about concrete rights for victims. In lending support for a national bill, which I assume suggests federal legislation, we must be careful not to prescribe rights over which the federal government has no jurisdiction and no authority to enforce.
Actions speak louder than words. Setting out principles and calling them rights which could not be effectively enforced would be pointless. We should direct our energy at addressing specific issues which we have the power to address.
Recommendations for a victims bill of rights are not novel. This debate has been ongoing since the mid-1980s. Ever since the American Congress passed its federal victims bill of rights, many Canadians have advocated that we follow suit. It is difficult to disagree with a bill of rights for victims. However, we should ensure that victims of crime will benefit from a so-called bill of rights.
We have had this discussion at both levels of government, federal and provincial. Since the report to ministers of justice of the federal task force on justice for victims of crime in 1983, the federal government, the provinces and territories have been engaged in ongoing consultations regarding improvements to the criminal justice system which would benefit victims of crime within the respective areas of responsibility. These consultations have squarely addressed the enactment of a victims bill of rights.
In 1985 Canada co-sponsored the United Nations statement of basic principles of justice for victims of crime. Canada's justice system already reflected those principles in 1985. The UN declaration prompted the federal and provincial governments to re-examine the issue of a victims bill of rights. There was an overwhelming consensus that a national bill of rights would not advance the cause of victims.
While all the provinces and the federal government were sincerely committed to making changes to the justice system, it was recognized that certain concerns could only be addressed by provincial legislation and other concerns could be addressed by federal legislation. The majority of concerns could not be addressed by legislation at all, but by changing attitudes about the role of the victim in the process and about basic human values of dignity and respect.
It was also recognized that in order to be meaningful a bill of rights must have a mechanism of enforcement. Rights without remedies cannot truly be said to be rights. For example, if a bill of rights states that victims have the right to receive timely information about the status of the investigation or the prosecution of the offender, what is the remedy when they feel they have not received
timely information? Who is responsible? Likely it is the police and/or the crown.
How can a single piece of legislation assign obligations to different participants in a justice system that play distinct roles and are employed by separate ministries? Moreover what is the remedy? Should the prosecution be called off because the victim did not get information? I do not think so. The advocates of a bill of rights do not think so either.
The example makes the point that all we really can do is prescribe a set of principles to guide all players in the criminal justice system and continue to encourage them to adhere to these principles. The victim is essential to the proper functioning of our criminal justice system and is deserving of the utmost consideration at all stages in the process.
The federal government is responsible for enacting the criminal law while the provinces are generally responsible for the enforcement of the law, the prosecution of offences and the administration of justice. Given that a bill of rights would not be of rights at all but of principles, the provinces and the federal government would get together and do something else.
In 1988 at a meeting of justice ministers, the federal and provincial governments endorsed the Canadian statement of basic principles of justice for victims of crime. The notion of a statement rather than a bill of rights addressed both the jurisdictional and the practical concerns. All jurisdictions would ensure that whatever initiatives they pursued would reflect these principles, whether in policy or in legislation.
Since 1988 several provinces, including Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and both the territories have enacted victim legislation which does refer to these principles.
The Canadian statement of basic principles of justice for victims of crime states that in recognition of the United Nations declaration of basic principles of justice for victims of crime, federal and provincial ministers responsible for criminal justice agree that the following principles should guide Canadian society in promoting access to justice, fair treatment and provision of assistance for victims of crime.
First, victims should be treated with courtesy, compassion and respect for their dignity and privacy. They should suffer the minimum of necessary inconvenience from their involvement with the criminal justice system.
Victims should receive through formal and informal procedures prompt and fair redress for the harm which they have suffered. Information regarding remedies and the mechanisms to obtain them should be made available to victims.
Information should made available to victims about their participation in criminal proceedings and the scheduling, progress and ultimate disposition of the proceedings.
Where appropriate the views and concerns of victims should be ascertained and assistance provided throughout the criminal process.
Where the personal interests of the victim are affected, the views or concerns of the victim should be brought to the attention of the court where appropriate and consistent with criminal law and procedure.
Measures should be taken when necessary to ensure the safety of victims and their families and to protect them from intimidation and retaliation.
Enhanced training should be made available to sensitize criminal justice personnel to the needs and concerns of victims and guidelines developed where appropriate for this purpose.
Victims should be informed of the availability of health and social services and other relevant assistance so they might continue to receive the necessary medical, psychological and social assistance through existing programs and services. Also, victims should report the crime and co-operate with law enforcement authorities.
As members can see, the majority of these principles relate to matters that can be addressed only by the police, prosecutors or court officials. In other words, the majority of victim issues fall to the provinces. It was therefore essential that the provinces had input into the statement and so overwhelmingly supported it.
The question is whether a national bill of rights for victims will do more than the existing statement of principles. A national bill of rights would likely be welcomed by victims, but they would be even more interested in concrete action on the government's commitment to issues like gun control, sentencing and the recently introduced initiatives of Bill C-17 and Bill C-27, which include provisions to strengthen or expand existing protections such as peace bonds and publication bans. Again, actions speak louder than words.
We must also look at the progress made in the last 15 years and talk to victims to find out what they really need in 1996.
In February of this year I read an article in the Vancouver Sun that highlighted the hon. member's proposal for victim rights, in many respects similar to the Canadian statement of basic principles: a right to information about services, a right to be informed of the offender's status, court dates, sentencing dates, a right to an oral or victim impact statement and a right to protection from intimidation.
It also went beyond the existing statement that proposed a right to participate in plea bargain discussions, a right to have police lay charges in domestic violence cases and a right to know if an offender has a sexually transmitted disease. These are certainly controversial issues but they are probably incapable of a remedy in the event of a breach. Moreover, they impact on areas that only the provinces can address.
I emphasize again that I strongly believe that victims of crime have a role to play in our criminal justice system and as such we must do whatever is feasible to ensure their participation does not result in revictimization. Ideally we would like to prevent crime and in consequence prevent victimization.
While we are making significant inroads in crime prevention, we know there will always be victims of crime. That is a sad but true fact. Therefore we must be responsive to their concerns. I believe the government has shown leadership and we know the work is not done. It still requires improvement in a variety of ways, all of which will in turn benefit the victims.
I am also aware the provinces continue to pursue initiatives to improve the administration of justice to benefit victims. I am aware the issue will be discussed at next week's meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for criminal justice. I am sure the provinces will be keenly interested in the hon. member's motion and in today's debate.
While I have no problem supporting a bill of rights for victims, I do not believe it is a cure-all remedy.