MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Crime victims would have more say as their cases wind their way through the justice system under a new Conservative government bill that veteran lawyers immediately denounced as crass politics.
The long-awaited legislation, part of the government's ongoing law-and-order theme, aims to fix what Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday was a broken part of the system.
"The rights of criminals have received far more attention than the rights of their victims," Harper said at a seniors' centre.
"Justice is not only for the accused; it is also for the victims."
The proposed law — similar to one passed in Ontario almost 20 years ago — would ensure victims are given information about cases in which they are involved, such as a copy of a bail or probation order, or details of a criminal's parole.
Other measures would mandate judges to take into account the safety of victims during bail proceedings, and the harm an accused has caused during sentencing.
Several defence lawyers branded the legislation as a calculated political ploy that victims of crime had fallen for.
"The (bill) is an example of a community that has sold itself to the Conservatives for a mess of porridge," said Clayton Ruby.
"They need rehabilitative programs and services, and compensation from the government, and they've dropped all those expensive demands in favour of shallow symbolism."
Other measures include a standardized victim-impact form that could also be used by review boards deciding what should happen to someone found not criminally responsible by reason of a mental disorder.
Another section would give victims the right to ask a court to consider ordering restitution for offences where financial losses are easy to calculate.
Frank Addario, another Toronto-based criminal lawyer, said the Conservative government's agenda is to position itself as tough on crime, even though it knows its measures have little real-world effect.
"It's cynicism masquerading as policy," Addario said.
"We did not need a new law for government to tell itself that it should communicate with victims about criminal cases."
Several victims rights advocates were on hand for the announcement, including former pro-hockey player Sheldon Kennedy, who was sexually abused by his minor-league coach.
"I'm not naive to think that we're going to flip a switch and everything's going to be better," Kennedy said.
"But being able to have this announcement...is going to start the process of trying to be better at the way we handle victims, not only through the court process, but really understanding the damage that happens to victims."
Some critics wondered who would pay for a new complaints mechanism that federal departments involved in the justice system would have to set up for those victims who feel their rights have been infringed.
The money, they said, would be better spent on victim services than on a whole new bureaucracy.
"I don't think this bill was necessary because basically what's needed is education and properly funded victim services across the country," said Bill Trudell, chairman of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers.
Harper made no mention of a proposed change to the Canada Evidence Act — contained in a few paragraphs in the 68-page bill — that would give prosecutors free hand to force spouses to testify against each other.
The lawyers said they did not expect the measure would have much impact given that spousal testimony comes into play in relatively few cases, and compelled evidence may be unreliable anyway.
Harper did say he was aware of widespread concern that giving victims more rights could bog down an already overloaded criminal justice system but said the legislation avoided that pitfall by not creating "victims as litigants."
The Assembly of First Nations said the government had not properly consulted First Nations about the legislation.
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