OTTAWA — A long-promised victim’s bill of rights is about to be introduced in Parliament, The Canadian Press has learned.
The arrival of the legislation is bound to drive another political lightning rod into the already fractured ground in the House of Commons.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay, in a letter to the Conservative caucus on Sunday, said he looks forward to delivering on the throne speech commitment “over the next few days.”
The letter was obtained by The Canadian Press and the introduction of the legislation is bound to turn up the heat with the Opposition, which has been consumed by the fight against the Harper government’s proposed electoral reforms.
“As we have stated countless times, we are committed to introducing a comprehensive package of legislative reforms never before seen in our country’s history,” said the letter. “Victims of crime deserve to be treated with courtesy, compassion, inclusion and respect. It is important their rights be considered throughout the criminal justice system.”
MacKay, in an interview last fall, said the government’s intention is to extend the involvement of victims “from the time of the offence to the final disposition of the sentence.”
He said the government doesn’t want them to be just another Crown witness, but an effective voice.
The plan builds on other Conservative measures in what they’ve dubbed their “tough on crime agenda.”
Last year, the country’s ombudsman for victims of crime recommended giving victims the right to speaking during the plea-bargaining process — something already established in some U.S. states.
The watchdog also wants to see victims have the right to a review a decision of the Crown not to prosecute a suspect, and a right to restitution with orders that are enforceable by the courts.
“We have an opportunity with the upcoming bill of rights to rebalance the system for victims of crime in Canada”, said ombudsman Sue O’Sullivan in a statement on Nov. 19, 2013.
When the proposal appeared in last fall’s throne speech opening the new session of Parliament, it drew a swift response from legal advocates, notably the John Howard Society which described the notion as a return to “medieval” justice and a distraction from the real problems facing the system.
Catherine Latimer, writing in The Toronto Star, said the real crisis lies in clogged and delayed courts, as well as overcrowding in prisons and remand centres.
She warned that the way the government is casting its plans, the Conservatives are threatening to “roll back more than 500 years of progress in criminal justice” by creating a system based on vengeance, the way it was in medieval Europe.
For centuries the system has worked to exorcise the notion that crime is personal affront that must be answered in a personal manner and replace it the notion that an offence against an individual is offence against society.
“The present government’s plans for victim-centred justice forgets this lesson of history and threatens a slide back into a new dark age where victims’ vengeance poses as justice,” Latimer wrote on Oct. 27, 2013.
She pointed out, in addition to advocating for the rights of prisoners, her society also provides victims services and restorative justice programs, and it believes they should have access to trauma counselling and compensation.