Reaching out to victims
Hazel Magnussen felt betrayed by the justice system after the death in 1999 of her brother, Dr. Douglas Snider.
Abraham Cooper, a Northern Alberta doctor, was convicted of manslaughter in Snider’s death, but not before he tried to paint Snider as an alcoholic who faked his own death to escape to a new life.
Having endured feelings of shock and fear, loss of control, isolation, and prolonged grief during the trial and subsequent appeals, Magnussen wrote a letter in 2004 that demanded changes to a justice system that, in her mind, victimized innocent victims of violence and ignored the consequences.
Magnussen went on to question whether any level of government had the political will to take decisive action and revamp the system.
Nearly a decade later, the federal Conservative government appears to have mustered the political will, although the details are sketchy.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced on Monday that a victims’ bill of rights was one of three get-tough-on-crime measures that the government would tackle this year.
The other two were stiffer sentences for child-sex predators and legislation to make public safety the “paramount consideration” in cases involving those who are found not criminally responsible for their actions by reason of a mental disorder.
Nicholson offered few details about what the victims’ rights bill would include, other than to say it would entrench the rights of victims into a single law.
That begs the question: what should the Conservatives’ bill include to strengthen victims’ rights?
After all, the federal government is not the first level of government to enact legislation governing victims’ rights.
As the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime states in its 2006 information paper on victims’ rights, most provinces and territories, which are responsible for administering the laws passed by the federal government, already have some type of victims’ bill of rights on the books.
Much of this legislation is based on the 1985 United Nations Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime.
However, the centre goes on to state that most of this legislation does not give victims true rights per se. The legislation simply states what rights victims of crime should have and — with one exception — none of it is legally binding.
At the very least, the Conservatives’ victims’ rights bill should go one step further than the provinces have and guarantee that victims’ rights are enforceable in a court of law, much like those passed in Manitoba in 2000.
The Conservatives’ bill would also do well to pay attention to victims’ needs. As the centre points out, convicted offenders have the right to a fair trial and lawyer, as well as the right to education and rehabilitation programs while they are serving their prison sentences.
All too often, victims and their families are sentenced to a lifetime of pain and suffering, especially when the crime is violent. More often than not, it is up to them to rehabilitate themselves, and programs and services for victims vary greatly from province to province.
Entrenching the right of victims to receive the services and treatment they need to recover from their horrific ordeal should be one of the Conservatives’ priorities.
The Conservatives’ bill also needs to send a strong message about the necessity to change a legal culture in which the victim is considered to be a bystander or, worse, a nuisance who has no say in legal proceedings.
Indeed, the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime admits that trying to persuade lawyers and judges that victims have a role in the justice system and that that role must be respected is one of the biggest challenges facing the victims’ rights movement.
The Conservatives’ bill should include some type of complaint mechanism that victims can turn to when they feel their rights are being violated.
Creating the position of a victims’ rights ombudsman empowered to investigate and resolve complaints would go a long way to ensuring that victims no longer feel like they are being run roughshod over by the justice system. At last, their voices would be heard.
Nicholson said the government will announce specific measures in the weeks and months to come.
Until then, Magnussen and other victims’ advocates are left to wonder whether the Conservatives will really take decisive action or whether they will re-victimize the innocent victims of violence with false promises.
Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.