VANCOUVER - Entrenching victims' rights in legislation will help those affected by crime get on with their lives, says Canada's new justice minister.
Victims "very often, sadly, feel that they are re-victimized, or feel that in fact the system is failing and doesn't meet their needs," Peter MacKay told reporters Wednesday in Vancouver before leading a round-table discussion about the Conservative government's plan for a victims' bill of rights.
MacKay said the rights bill, expected to be tabled sometime this fall, will give victims some comfort and a louder voice in the justice system by putting those rights into laws.
MacKay, a former Crown prosecutor, was appointed attorney general and minister of justice in last week's cabinet shuffle. He said Wednesday that throughout his legal career he has seen, firsthand, how victims are sometimes poorly served by the court.
"I remember a few years ago running into an officer that I had done a number of high-profile cases with and he was wearing a little fish hook on his uniform," MacKay said. "And I said, 'What does that fish hook signify?' And he said, 'Catch and release.' He said that's what we're doing."
"He was wearing (the hook) on his uniform because of such a deep sense of frustration with the system," MacKay said.
Although he would not comment on specific cases where victims have not been served by the court, MacKay said there are certainly instances where he questions whether justice was done.
However, one of Canada's top criminal law professors is concerned that a victims' bill of rights will do little for victims, while potentially making the criminal justice system more difficult to operate.
There are "victims' bills of rights at the provincial level, and I guess one of my concerns about many of them is that they're really kind of toothless tigers," Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said in an interview.
"Governments are often quick to proclaim the rights of victims, but much more reluctant to give victims enforceable rights."
Some victims do want a punitive approach to crime, he said.
"But I think if we took victims' participation and satisfaction seriously in the criminal process, this would actually impose a lot more duties on police, prosecutors, judges.... Is this something that is really going to assist victims, even at the expense of making the criminal justice process less efficient, or is this something that is really window dressing and allows the criminal justice system to continue in a way that frankly often doesn't treat crime victims very well."
Roach noted many victims' services fall under provincial jurisdiction, raising complex issues about federal-provincial relations and what the role of a federal bill of rights would be. The law professor said he will wait and see what the bill of rights actually includes when it is introduced in Parliament, but added that a potentially more effective alternative would be providing more money to victims' services.
Angela Marie MacDougall is the executive director of Battered Women's Support Services in Vancouver. She said while the current justice system often fails to help women who are victims of gendered-based violence, she's not convinced a victims' bill of rights will solve the problem.
"Any generic bill of rights would fail to meet the needs of women victims of crime, particularly sexual violence," she said, because specific provisions regarding violence against women would have to be included for it to be meaningful.