Justice for Victims of Crime

“Victim Law comes out of a real concern that the justice system is not treating victims fairly, respectfully, and appropriately”

Associate Professor Benjamin Perrin, author of the award-winning book Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking (Penguin, 2011), talks about the concerns and experience behind his latest book, Victim Law: The Law of Victims of Crime in Canada (Thomson Reuters, 2017).

Why is this topic important to address?

Victim Law comes out of a real concern that the justice system is not treating victims fairly, respectfully, and appropriately. We see this in the news regularly – there are stories every week about how the justice system has failed victims. This crisis has spurred legislative reforms, public debate, commissions of inquiry, and major policy changes across the country. We are at a critical moment in our justice system – about one in five Canadians is a victim of crime every year according to Statistics Canada. Very few of them report that crime, and certain crimes (such as sexual assault) are so vastly underreported that it raises the question of whether our justice system is doing its job or not. In my view, it is not – it is failing too many victims.

What led you personally to write this book?

The latest studies done by Statistics Canada found that only one in twenty sexual assaults gets reported to the police, and a recent investigation by the Globe and Mail found that in many parts of the country a fraction of reported assaults actually go forward. Many are determined to be “unfounded”. Important questions about how this situation has been created form part of the intellectual impetus for this project. But there is also a more personal dimension – when I was a teenager, my mother worked at a center for abused women and children in Calgary. At one point, she asked me if I wanted to help her with babysitting. I began to provide volunteer childcare while the moms went together for their group counselling sessions. Through my experience at the centre I started to learn about the physical, emotional and in some cases sexual abuses that not only children had witnessed their mothers suffer, but that they had suffered themselves.

This was really what spurred my original interest in getting involved in the legal profession. Over the course of my legal career, I have worked extensively on issues like child sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Drawing on this work the moment seemed right to address, in a comprehensive way, something which has been emerging as a distinct field over the last three decades, which is now being called “victim law”. Looking back into the early 1980s, there was literally no mention in the Criminal Code, which is a huge document, of the word “victim”. Flash forward to today, and the word “victim” is visible throughout the Criminal Code, there are highly special provisions that are dealing with victims at each stage of the criminal justice system, we have a brand new Victims Bill of Rights Act at the federal level which includes the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (a quasi-constitutional set of legal rights for victims for the first time ever in Canadian history). I was heavily involved in developing the Victims Bill of Right Act when I was in Ottawa working in the Prime Minister’s Office. When I came back to the Allard School of Law, I knew I wanted to do a lot more with victims’ issues. The result is this new book.

What kind of research was involved in writing the book, and how did the project take shape?

It turned out to be a large task. There is such a huge range of legal sources that victims can benefit from, yet it is very difficult to find them. Other books on victim issues have barely scratched the surface on this area of law, and there are no comprehensive guides or resource handbooks in this area. Working with a group of 14 students beginning in 2013, we looked at every single statute in each province or territory and identified everything that was relevant for victims of crime. The team did an invaluable task identifying and cataloging these statutory previsions, which range over many types of measures – to provide victims with information about the status of the case, the state of an offender who is incarcerated, when they might get released, when they are eligible for parole, eligibility for victim compensation (even if there is no criminal proceeding, victims in most provinces in Canada can get compensation for the harm they had suffered). We began this by thinking we were going to put out a 30-page report, but by the end of the year I realized this is a book – and we had not even started on federal law, Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, and the Evidence Act.

The best estimates we have for the Department of Justice is that crime costs about $100 billion a year and 83% of those costs are borne by victims. It is a huge economic drain on Canada, and victims are bearing a blunt of that. However, we also found some innovative measures in some provinces – things like Emergency Protections Orders that exist for domestic violence – that can give very powerful legal tools for victims to move forward and the police to enforce. We also found in some provinces residential tenancy laws that give special status for people who are victims of domestic abuse but are not on the lease (while the abuser might be). Typically, if you just follow the regular tenancy law, if the abuser is forcibly removed form that properly by the court and police, the victim may have no legal right to stay in that residence – and yet it is their home. It is important that provinces have laws – and some of them do – that recognize if someone is a victim of domestic violence they have a legal right to stay in that place and take over the lease.

Who is this book for, and what kind of impact do you hope it will have?

I wrote this book for the judges, Crown prosecutors and police, people who work in victim services and also people who work in criminal law who are academics and legal scholars as well as government. The book is directed towards a practitioner legal audience and academic audience. It is over 500 pages, which shows how much information there is out there. It took us a year just to find these legal sources. The goal is to make this body of law accessible, and also to improve it. The book includes recommendations on how to improve both the criminal justice system, but also provincial and territorial laws to better help victims of crime.

The Supreme Court had said that victims have legal rights, and that the job of the courts is to reconcile those rights with the rights of the accused. The book is trying to affirm legal rights of victims of crime, to support them through their recovery process through legal and policy means, and to ensure when we develop and apply the law we do it in a way that is respectful of their rights.

Professor Benjamin Perrin

Benjamin Perrin is an Associate Professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia and a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy. Professor Perrin's principal teaching and research interests are Criminal Law, Constitutional Law and International Criminal Law.

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