07/11/2013 05:11 EDT | Updated 09/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Advocates at odds over victims' rights bill

Advocates, politicians and stakeholders are at odds over whether a bill of rights for victims of crime will deliver enhanced justice – or just be an empty gesture.

The federal government has just extended its consultation period for the proposed legislation by two months to allow more participants to weigh in. But the bill is already stirring controversy about what rights should be enshrined, how they can be legally enforced and who will pick up the costs.

Even victims' rights advocates are split over whether it will merely pay lip service to victims or yield meaningful results.

The federal ombudsman for victims of crime, Sue O'Sullivan, has submitted a comprehensive list of 30 recommendations, ranging from restitution enforcement measures to legal supports for victims through court and parole proceedings. Her spokeswoman, Christina McDonald, said the overarching goal is to ensure a victim's right to be informed, considered, protected and supported is guaranteed by law rather than just guided by policy.

As most direct services for victims are provided at the provincial level, the ombudsman is also urging the government to consider "nationally-consistent" supports and enforcement. As for who ultimately pays, costs and payment will depend on what is included in the final bill and how it is implemented, McDonald said.

Balance between offenders, victims' rights

"It is an investment whose time has come in Canada," she said. "The balance of rights between offenders and victims is just too crucial – we cannot have a healthy justice system without it."

But Steve Sullivan, the former federal ombudsman who is now executive director of Ottawa Victims' Services, believes the impact of a victims' rights bill would be limited, and could channel scarce resources away from critical front-line services to lawyers' fees and administrative costs.

In an era of governments forced to pick between competing priorities, Sullivan sees more pressing areas for investment.

"It's not going to enhance public safety," he said. "It could enhance the satisfaction of some victims in the system, which is a good thing, but I think when you weigh the potential costs of that versus what we could do with the same money in other areas which actually could enhance their lives and public safety, I think there are other things we could be doing like affordable housing and community services."

Enshrining rights for victims in law could also bog down an already sluggish system, leading to more drawn-out proceedings and higher costs, Sullivan warned.

"We're seeing frustrations with delays in the system now – it potentially could get worse," he said.

Could more victims' rights clog courts?

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, supports the principle of guaranteeing state-supported services for victims, but agrees that ensuring participation of victims in all steps of criminal justice process – from court hearings to parole hearings to temporary prison absence decisions – could clog the system.

And that could prove counter-productive to the administration of justice if more cases are thrown out of court due to delays, she said.

Latimer wants to see a "fair and inclusive" definition of who is a victim and assurance that enshrining the rights of victims does not erode rights of other parties, including the accused and convicted offenders.

"If it's a veiled tough-on-crime initiative that essentially disembowels justice principles, that would be most unfortunate, and it would deviate from a long history of the separation and distinction of criminal law and its movement towards objective and impartial justice," she said.

'More effective voice' in criminal justice system

Julie di Mambro, spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, did not provide a timetable of when the legislation would be tabled, but she said the input from the consultation period will be considered in the bill to give victims "a more effective voice in the criminal justice system."

“This legislation will build on the government's record of achievements in advancing the interests of victims by entrenching their rights into a single law at the federal level,” she said.

But NDP justice critic Francois Boivin accused the government of “playing politics on the backs of victims” with photo ops and re-announcements. Many measures to enhance rights are already in private members’ bills before Parliament.

“There’s a credibility deficit on the part of the government. Are they genuine in wanting to help victims?” she asked. “We have to cater to victims, but at the same time, we have to ensure crimes don’t happen.”

Boivin is eager to see what is ultimately drafted in the bill, but wonders if it will be simply good intentions or concrete measures that actually help victims and reduce crime. She worries the bill could amount to little more than smoke and mirrors.

“If they want to be true, maybe they should make the justice system a little more accessible, a bit more fast instead of going with big phrases of putting criminals away for their life and no chance of parole for 40 years and so on that would not hold their ground before charter challenges,” she said.