Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to an issue of concern certainly to the residents of Waterloo—Wellington, but also to the people of Canada and all members of the House. It is the issue of addressing the needs of victims of crime within the criminal justice system.
Bill C-79 is an act to amend the Criminal Code (victims of crime) and another act in consequence. It was tabled by the Minister of Justice on April 15, 1999. The bill has been widely supported by the public, by victim advocates, by service providers and by members of all parties in the House.
The history of Bill C-79 predates its introduction in April. The amendments to the Criminal Code were shaped by the work of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights which thoroughly reviewed the role of the victim in the criminal justice system.
It is important to note that the recommendations for Criminal Code amendments were unanimous. These recommendations were based on the submissions of victims of crime, victim advocates, victim service providers and many others who were actively involved in and knowledgeable about our criminal justice system.
These amendments demonstrate the commitment of the Government of Canada to engage the people of Canada in discussions on important issues. It also demonstrates how parliamentarians can work together collaboratively to achieve shared goals and to work together in the interests of all Canadians.
Over the past decade we have witnessed many improvements to the criminal justice system to ease the burden of victims and witnesses. Clearly there remains room for further improvement. While laws, policies, programs and services are available, Canadians are largely unaware of the current initiatives.
The standing committee, in its wisdom, in its review of the victim's role in the criminal justice system, carefully examined the current legislation of both the federal and provincial governments before identifying gaps and recommending change. The Criminal Code amendments in Bill C-79 build upon the existing provisions regarding the victim impact statement, the victim surcharge and the various provisions to make it easier for victims and witnesses to provide their testimony.
The amendments also enact new provisions to address the concerns of victims regarding their safety, to enhance and expand the opportunities for their views to be considered and to encourage the provision of information to victims.
Before highlighting the key provisions of Bill C-79, which I am certain all members are familiar with, I would emphasize that the Government of Canada regards a response to the needs and concerns of victims of crime as an ongoing process. Bill C-79 amendments are part of that process, not the beginning nor the end.
As I indicated, many initiatives have been taken to reform our laws to improve the situation for victims of crime, including the sentencing amendments in 1996 which required judges to consider victim impact statements, and the amendments in 1997 to govern the production of personal records of sex offence complaints and complainants.
The government will continue to be responsive to the needs of victims of crime. We will be looking to all members of the House for their continued support for current and future initiatives.
Bill C-79 amendments will implement the unanimous recommendations of the standing committee. They will improve the existing provisions and enact new reforms. While these amendments will enhance the voice of victims of crime in our criminal justice system, they will not, I repeat, will not in any way infringe on the rights of persons accused of crime.
The provisions have been carefully drafted to ensure that all rights are respected. Moreover, the preamble emphasizes that the rights of both victims, witnesses and accused persons are to be accommodated and to be reconciled where possible.
The amendments deal with several needs identified by victims: the need to enhance the victim impact statement provisions; the need to expand protection for victims and witnesses to facilitate their participation in the process; the need to ensure that the concerns of victims and witnesses regarding their safety and security are taken into account when determining whether an accused person should be released on bail and the need to revise the victim surcharge provisions.
These are important changes and certainly worthy for the House to note. The victim impact statement amendments further expand the current regime which provides that the judge consider any impact statement prepared at the time of sentencing the offender. As a result of the amendments where the victim wants to read the statement to the judge at the time of sentencing they shall be permitted to do so. This opportunity to present their statement will ensure victims that in addition to the requirement that the statement be considered it will be listened to by the judge and anyone else present in the courtroom at sentencing, including the accused.
The amendments will also address a significant concern of victims that they did not now know about the opportunity to make an impact statement. I think that is also important in terms of its change and what it represents.
The code will now require that the sentencing judge ask whether the victim has been informed of the opportunity to prepare and submit a victim impact statement. The judge may adjourn the sentencing hearing to permit a victim impact statement to be prepared in appropriate circumstances.
I also want to point out that the victim surcharge provisions will be significantly reformed to place the obligation to pay the surcharge squarely on the offender as a consequence of conviction. The amount of the surcharge will be fixed at a mandatory minimum amount. The judge, however, will have the discretion to impose an increased amount in appropriate circumstances or to waive it completely where the offender establishes that a payment of this additional penalty would cause undue hardship.
The new surcharge regime will result in a significant increase in the revenue available to provinces and the territories to help victims. Moreover, the victim surcharge is a way for offenders to account to victims of crime as a group and to acknowledge that victims need assistance and services.
The amendments will also address the need for the victim's safety to be taken into account when an accused person is being released on bail. As a result of these amendments, the responsible judicial officer, whether it is the officer in charge, a justice of the peace or a judge, may then consider the safety and security of the victim in any decision about an accused's bail.
In addition, where an accused is released pending trial, the judge must consider including as a condition of bail that the accused abstain from any direct or indirect communication with the victim. Any other condition necessary to ensure safety and security of the victim can also be specified.
To address the difficulties faced by certain witnesses during their testimony because of their age, disability, the nature of their victimization, amendments have been included to do the following: to extend to the victims of sexual or violent crime up to 18 years of age protections which restrict personal cross-examination by self-represented accused persons, by providing for the appointment of counsel to conduct the cross-examination. It also permits a victim or a witness with mental or physical disability to have a support person present while giving testimony. Finally, it permits a judge to restrict publication of the identity of a wide range of victims or witnesses where the victim establishes a need for the order and where the judge considers it necessary for the proper administration of justice.
This provision will codify the prevailing common law and procedure as established by the Supreme Court of Canada and will fully respect the need to balance the rights of the victim, the accused and the public.
These amendments will significantly improve the experience of victims of crime within the criminal justice system. We know that our work is not over and that much more can be done to encourage the expansion of services for victims, and to encourage the provision of information to victims of crime and to all Canadians about our criminal justice system, and to bring forward necessary reforms where needed.
Bill C-79 amendments are necessary and reasonable reforms. For the 10 years that I sat on the Waterloo regional police service as chairman, we very much valued the importance of victims and the role they play in the criminal justice system.
I view these amendments to Bill C-79 as a great improvement in this area, and I do so on behalf of the residents of Waterloo—Wellington and all Canadians. I thank all hon. members in the House for their support of these amendments and for their concern for the victims of crime. This is a very important issue that we must deal with expeditiously.