Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today in support of this important bill, Bill C-32, the victims bill of rights. It has been a long time coming, yet many people over decades prior have seen the need for something in the order of what we have here today.
The victims bill of rights is unlike any other legislative proposal for victims of crime in our country. It would create a stand-alone act, the Canadian victims bill of rights, or the CVBR. As my esteemed colleague just moments ago spoke so very eloquently about, it would enshrine 12 rights for victims at the federal level, for the first time in Canadian history. That is what the bill is all about.
My colleague mentioned those 12 rights being grouped into some different areas of information, protection, participation, and also restitution. All would be enforceable through the remedy scheme proposed in the bill. That is only the first part of the reforms included in Bill C-32. In order to give life to the 12 rights set out in the Canadian victims bill of rights, Bill C-32 includes amendments to the Criminal Code, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, and the Canada Evidence Act.
I am very proud to be part of this historic recognition of the important role of victims in the criminal justice process. It is on the eve of my departure from this place in the fall, along with my colleague who spoke prior and others around this place. However, there is a great sense of satisfaction that we got this together and it is being passed under our watch, so to speak.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has just finished an extensive study of this important piece of legislation. I was very pleased to hear so many members of the committee, from all parties, expressing their support for the bill. We have already heard those inferences here this morning.
This support speaks to the importance of the bill's overall goal of recognizing victims and ensuring that they occupy a more meaningful place in our criminal justice system. I was also pleased that so many witnesses took the time to testify at committee. Indeed, some 40 witnesses appeared before the standing committee to offer their views on the victims bill of rights. Most of those witnesses expressed their overall support for the bill while offering some specific constructive comments and suggestions for its improvement. Many acknowledged the importance of the bill in taking this first step toward treating victims as more than mere witnesses in the criminal justice process.
We also heard some criticisms. Some argued that the bill would cause excessive delays in an already overburdened justice system. In particular, they felt that a victims's right to information, supported by changes in the Criminal Code, would bring the criminal justice system to a halt. For example, proposed new subsection 606(4.1) would require a court that has accepted a guilty plea from an accused as a result of a plea agreement for a serious personal injury offence or murder to inquire of the prosecutor whether reasonable steps have been taken to inform the victim of the agreement. If it is not reasonable in the circumstance to do so, the crown would then be required to notify the victim as soon as possible.
That amendment would allow victims to be informed, at an early opportunity, of potential plea bargains as they are on the horizon. Victims would be entitled, under proposed new subsection 606(4.2), to ask the crown attorney to notify them of plea agreements in cases involving other indictable offences with a maximum punishment of imprisonment of five years or more.
It is clear that these amendments were carefully crafted to respond to victims' desire to be informed of plea agreements, to respect the independence of crown prosecutors, and to avoid delays in the criminal justice system that could infringe on an accused's right to be tried within a reasonable time, or which would otherwise grind the system to a halt.
It is worth noting that section 20 of the Canadian victims bill of rights addresses aspects of that concern directly, and that the act is to be applied in a manner that would not likely interfere with the proper administration of justice. That would include causing excessive delay in the prosecution of an offence. This particular amendment, which supports a victim's right to information, has been criticized by some for not going far enough. We have heard from witnesses who would like a victim's right to participation to include an ability to present their views on plea agreements before they are accepted by the court.
Some are aware that in developing this victims bill of rights, all of the views presented during the in-person and online consultations were considered. They were weighed, and it is very much a balancing act. In this bill, I think we have it right.
Victims have repeatedly noted the importance of being informed of a plea agreement as soon as practical. The committee heard testimony from witnesses who spoke of the positive effects of informing victims of plea agreements. It can make them feel more included in the criminal justice process and more likely to understand the nature of the plea agreement.
The issue of possible delays in the criminal justice system resulting from informing victims of plea agreements was raised at committee. In particular, the testimony provided by Mr. Gilhooly, who shared his experiences as a victim in the criminal justice system, summed it up perfectly. When asked if he thought the new duty to inform victims of a plea bargain would somehow delay the court process, he replied, “it would have taken 15 minutes to have kept me apprised”, when referring to the plea agreement reached for hockey coach Graham James.
I agree with Mr. Gilhooly's remarks. Bill C-32 has struck the right balance between informing victims while avoiding delays in the criminal justice system.
Another Criminal Code amendment that has received a great deal of attention is proposed in the new section 486.31, which would codify the common law practice of enabling a witness to testify without revealing his or her true identity, typically through the use of a pseudonym. This provision has been criticized as being contrary to principles of fundamental justice and unconstitutional. However, I disagree, as would many around this place, obviously.
The proposed scheme would be discretionary and would require a judge to determine that such an order was in the interest of the proper administration of justice, a test that is well established in our current criminal law. The judge would consider a number of factors when considering whether to make that order. These factors would include fair trial rights, the interests of the witness in question, and societal interests relating to the proper functioning of our criminal justice system.
This provision would recognize the critical role witnesses play in the criminal justice system. Intimidation, such as threats of harm, can be directed at witnesses to impact their evidence, or indeed, in some cases, to prevent them from testifying at all.
In the 2007 case of Named Person v. Vancouver Sun, the Supreme Court of Canada also recognized that it may be appropriate, in certain circumstances, to order a witness to testify using a pseudonym. Indeed, courts across Canada have done so. For example, in the case of R v. Moosemay, 2002, an Alberta court authorized a witness in a Wildlife Act prosecution to testify using a pseudonym to protect his safety. Similarly, in R. v. Gingras,1992, the Alberta Court of Appeal made an order to protect the safety of a prison inmate who testified and feared for his safety if his identity was made public. These cases demonstrate that orders such as these can be important in a wide variety of situations.
The standing committee heard from one witness who works with victims of human trafficking and who was threatened as a result of her testimony at trial. She too very much supports this provision to protect the security of victims.
The fair trial rights of the accused will always remain at the centre of the criminal justice system. However, a criminal trial must acknowledge and accommodate, to the extent possible, other important societal interests, such as protecting those who agree to testify as witnesses.
We know that the Canadian victims bill of rights cannot be all things to all people. It has been criticized by some for going too far in recognizing victims rights and by others for not going far enough. I, for one, believe that the bill has struck the right balance. It provides in plain language the rights victims should be able to exercise in the criminal justice and corrections systems. It also includes appropriate limitations that respect the myriad interests at play in the criminal justice system, including the rights of an accused. Most importantly, it provides the framework upon which all levels of government, federal, provincial, and territorial, can build to continue to strengthen the criminal justice system's treatment of victims.
I hope that all members will support Bill C-32 and take part in this historic change in our Canadian criminal law.