Spouses could be compelled to testify under new victims' rights bill
Andrea Janus, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, April 3, 2014 12:02PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 3, 2014 2:14PM EDT
The Harper government unveiled its long-touted victims’ bill of rights Thursday, after months of promising greater consideration for victims of crime within Canada’s legal system.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay unveiled the bill at a midday press conference in Mississauga, Ont., but a copy of the bill was released to media Thursday morning.
The 68-page bill makes sweeping changes to how victims are dealt with by the Canadian justice system. It also eliminates spousal privilege, which has allowed spouses to refuse to testify against each other except in specific cases such as crimes against youths and sexual assault.
Bill C-32 amends the Canada Evidence Act to say that “no person is incompetent, or uncompellable, to testify for the prosecution by reason only that they are married to the accused.”
The introduction of the bill follows months of cross-Canada consultations with victims, families and advocates.
The consensus of those consultations, Harper said Thursday, “is that there are major gaps in the way that Canada’s justice system meets the needs of victims.
“We are about to change that.”
The legislation includes extensive measures to ensure victims have full access to information about their case as it winds its way through the course, and have full knowledge of support services available to them during the process. It also calls on the “appropriate authorities” to protect victims from intimidation and retaliation.
Once an accused is convicted, victims will be allowed access to information about the offender’s program while he or she is incarcerated, and have access to release dates, conditions of release, and an up-to-date photograph of the offender.
The bill also sets the onus on the justice system to set “geographical and other constraints” on where an offender can live upon release, Harper said.
The bill also stipulates that in every case, “a restitution order against the offender” must be considered, an idea that has raised some controversy in the legal community. Some judges have argued that a restitution order against a bankrupt offender is essentially meaningless.
The bill calls for any unpaid restitution orders to be entered as a civil court judgment to make it enforceable against the offender.
The bill also includes amendments to the Criminal Code, including allowing witnesses to testify using a pseudonym “in appropriate cases.” It also makes publication bans “mandatory on application” when victims are under age 18.
The bill, Harper said, “is intended to give a voice to victims, to protect them and to help them enforce their rights.”
Many victims and advocates were at Thursday’s announcements, including Sheldon Kennedy, who years ago went public with his story of being sexually abused by junior hockey coach Graham James.
Kennedy tweeted Thursday to MacKay: “Thx for giving victims a voice and feeling that they matter.”
Teresa Kruze and her husband, Gary, were also on hand for the announcement. Gary’s brother, Martin, was one of the victims of Gordon Stuckless, who was convicted in 1997 of abusing children at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens between 1969 and 1988.
Kruze said her brother-in-law often said that he didn’t feel he had a voice, and “that it seemed that the perpetrators were treated much more fairly and with rights than the actual victims were.”
After Stuckless received a sentence of two years less a day, Martin Kruze killed himself.
“One thing that Martin always said, he said ‘I am not a victim. I am a survivor,’” Kruze said. “So it would have been nice to say the survivors’ bill of rights, but that’s fine. We’ll take the victims’ bill of rights.”
A statement from the PMO said the government “will provide dedicated funding to support the implementation” of the new bill “through existing resources as well as the allocation of new federal resources.”
The statement did not give a dollar figure.
The bill “is part of the Conservative ideology that we can be tough on the offenders but there’s always an innocent party to every criminal event,” Power Play host Don Martin said Thursday morning. “And you can’t have rough love for the criminal in that event without having a soft spot for the victim.”
The bill should receive strong support from the opposition parties, who will be “unlikely to come out swinging” against a bill that helps victims, Martin said.
The legislation outlines that the Act does not give a victim “the status as a party, intervenor or observer” at any legal proceedings. It also stipulates that victims cannot sue for damages if their rights under the Act are infringed upon or denied.