The federal justice minister says he is open to updating the Victims Bill of Rights after a parliamentary report called on the federal government to make changes, including allowing victims of sexual offences to opt out of publication bans.
Witnesses at the House of Commons justice committee said that publication bans are essential and should be available to victims who want them in place — so long as they are consulted first.
But judges often impose publication bans to protect the identity of complainants in sexual offences at the request of the Crown. Some victims of sexual assault say they have had to fight to control the use of their own names.
A victim-centred approach would give people a choice, the committee heard.
“The most important thing for moving forward is for survivors to be able to have meaningful choices in terms of whether a publication ban is implemented and when one is removed,” Kat Owens, a project director at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, told the committee.
“The complicated process of removing one’s own publication ban puts up hurdles for victims who wish, for example, to be free to speak,” the report says.
The committee is recommending changes to the Criminal Code so that victims must be informed before a publication ban is imposed, and so they have the ability to opt out.
Justice Minister David Lametti said he has not yet read the committee’s report, which was released Wednesday.
“Hopefully what the committee will do is give us further suggestions on ways to move forward, and I look forward to working with their recommendations,” he said on Thursday.
Lametti said he is open to thinking about changes to the law and is “never closed to a good suggestion.”
The report adds to an existing pile of negative reviews about the way Canada treats victims of crime.
It says the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, passed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in early 2015, has been poorly implemented and doesn’t properly support victims.
Several witnesses told the parliamentary committee that services for victims are not accessible for all across Canada, and people are not aware of their rights under the law.
Heidi Illingworth, executive director of Ottawa Victim Services and the former federal ombudsperson for victims of crime, told the committee that victims should be guaranteed access to medical, psychological, legal and safety support services.
“We need to increase the capacity of victim-serving organizations and community-based restorative justice programs through sustainable core funding to ensure that victims can access services in every part of this country,” she told the committee last June.
The 78-page report makes 13 recommendations, including establishing minimum standards of support for victims across all provinces and territories and increasing funding for services.
It also calls for a national public education campaign to inform Canadians about their rights as victims of crime and for more victims’ rights training for people who work in criminal justice.
It says the federal government needs to work with provinces and territories to develop best practices.
Benjamin Roebuck, the current ombudsperson for victims of crime, told MPs on the committee that better data collection is also needed, particularly for minority and racialized populations.
“There are people who are working so hard who need support,” he said. “We need to validate our data to be able to identify these gaps and say that there’s work to be done. We need to shift resources into outreach and into connecting with these groups.”