Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 9

The Right to Information

By Susan McDonald

Susan McDonald, LLB, PhD, is Principal Researcher with the Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada, in Ottawa. She is responsible for victims of crime research in the Department and has extensive research experience on a range of victim issues.

For decades, domestic and international research has drawn a clear link between information and victims of crime. Many studies suggest that access to relevant information should be recognized as a basic need for victims of crime, for instance, while others indicate that the process of seeking information can help cope with victimization (see for example Hill 2009, p.45). The first United Nations Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power (1985)Footnote 2 states in Article 6:

6. The responsiveness of judicial and administrative processes to the needs of victims should be facilitated by:

(a) Informing victims of their role and the scope, timing and progress of the proceedings and of the disposition of their cases, especially where serious crimes are involved and whether they have requested such information.

Article 26 of the UN Convention on Social and Economic Rights is generally interpreted as outlining a child’s right to a primary education. A series of recent essays that re-considered the Convention through a gendered lens included one (McDonald 2000c) that envisioned “a right to know” for women who experience intimate-partner violence. Based on field work with women who experienced this type of violence, the researcher learned that the women wanted to know more about the criminal justice system in general, about their cases specifically, and about any available services and support. This small, qualitative study adds to the body of research completed in the last 30 years highlighting the importance of information to victims of crime (MacLeod and Picard 1989; MacLeod and Shin 1994; see also, Meredith and Paquette 2000; PRA 2004; Sims 2006; CRCVC 2005; Wemmers 1999).

With the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR) coming into force in July 2015, it is timely to take a closer look at this right to information. What do we know in Canada about victims and their information needs? How does victimization impact awareness of the criminal justice system? What formats and delivery mechanisms are most appropriate for victims of crime? This article will explore these questions by reviewing research from decades ago, as well as a recent assessment of victims’ information needs and how they are addressed.

The Canadian Victims Bill of Rights

On July 23, 2015, the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights came into force and effect. Provinces and territories have had similar legislation for many years, but this statute represents the first of its kind at the federal level. Sections 6, 7 and 8 of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights outline the right to information (see Text Box 1), stipulating that victims can request information about:

  • The criminal justice system and the role of victims;
  • Available victim services and programs, including restorative justice programs; and,
  • Their right to make a complaint if, in their opinion, their rights have not been respected.

Victims can also request information about their case, including:

  • The status and outcome of the investigation;
  • The scheduling, progress and final outcome of criminal proceedings;
  • Any review of an offender’s conditional release, and the timing and conditions of that release;
  • Copies of any orders about bail, conditional sentence, and probation; and
  • Information about an accused who has been found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder while that person is under the jurisdiction of a court or a Review Board.

In cases of murder or for serious personal-injury offences, the court must ask the Crown if reasonable steps were taken to let the victim know about a plea agreement. The same condition applies—if the victim requests it—to offences that carry a potential sentence of imprisonment of five years or more.

Victims Bill of Rights,

The Right to Information

General Information

6. Every victim has the right, on request, to information about

(a) the criminal justice system and the role of victims in it;

(b) the services and programs available to them as a victim, including restorative justice programs; and

(c) their right to file a complaint for an infringement or denial of any of their rights under this Act.

Investigation and proceedings

7. Every victim has the right, on request, to information about

(a) the status and outcome of the investigation into the offence; and

(b) the location of proceedings in relation to the offence, when they will take place and their progress and outcome.

Information about offender or accused

8. Every victim has the right, on request, to information about

(a) reviews under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act relating to the offender’s conditional release and the timing and conditions of that release; and

(b) hearings held for the purpose of making dispositions, as defined in subsection 672.1(1) of the Criminal Code, in relation to the accused, if the accused is found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder or unfit to stand trial, and the dispositions made at those hearings.

What Research Tells Us

For decades, research in Canada has consistently shown that victims want information. This section will describe what this research tells us about Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) both generally and in the context of victimization and the criminal justice system.

PLEI has a long history in Canada; it evolved out of both grassroots efforts and government initiatives (see McDonald 2000b). PLEI activities are diverse and wide-ranging in terms of topics, formats and delivery mechanisms. The Centre for Research and Innovation, part of Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), recently attempted to map these activities in Ontario. CLEO also conducted a survey of front-line workers at community legal clinics and other service agencies (n=241) across Ontario (Rimmington and Vazquez 2013). The survey found that print materials remain relevant.

Print remains a critical way to reach low-income and disadvantaged people with legal information. Although online media are gaining in popularity, print in various formats is particularly useful for audiences who have barriers to accessing online information (p.31).

Little research has been completed on the impact of PLEI, so there is only a limited understanding about whether PLEI activities meet their objectives and foster learning (Cader 2003; Department of Justice PLEI Workshop Report 2010). Several projects underway in Canada strive to fill this gap and measure how well PLEI activities raise awareness and improve access to justice.Footnote 3

PLEI has garnered more attention in the past five years due to the work of the National Action Committee on Access to Family and Civil JusticeFootnote 4 and the Canadian Bar Association.Footnote 5 This work recognizes that PLEI helps improve access to justice and promotes early resolution of conflicts. Research completed in the last decade identified the common legal problems experienced by Canadians (Currie 2009) and demonstrated that Canadians consider criminal law a priority issue (see Cohl and Thomson 2008). A multi-year research study in Ontario established guiding principles for the development and implementation of PLEI that targets minority communities. The principles include strong collaboration with target communities, the use of multiple formats (e.g. audio, video) and of intermediaries to connect with target groups, and the provision of additional assistance (Zalik 2009, p.39). Another study involving Aboriginal communities emphasized that the communities must have “ownership, control, access and possession” (OCAP) of PLEI projects (Zalik 2006, p.3).

Internet-based PLEI projects (including those using social media) have the potential to make significant contributions in today’s wired society. Any PLEI-delivery strategy that seeks to utilize digital-communications technology should ensure that it can meet the needs of victims, as well as those of service providers, family members and other stakeholders. When working with vulnerable groups, information alone can rarely replace direct personal assistance (Justice Education Society 2009; Focus Consultants 2009; 2010). Cohl and Thomson (2009, 52) concluded from their research that,

Truly accessible information enables the person to identify and understand the legal problem, on its own and in its broader context. It is not sufficient to simply make the information available on line or in written format. People need to connect legal information to their own circumstances. Often, they need someone to help them define the problem, find the relevant information, apply the information to their situation, and make referrals to legal professionals who can advise and represent them in legal matters. For vulnerable people, this personal attention is essential, and they often need the additional support of a trusted intermediary.

As mentioned above, information is extremely important to victims of all crimesFootnote 6 and their families; in research studies, these people consistently identify that they need:

  • Information about their specific case, such as notification of hearings and release;
  • General information about the criminal justice system; and
  • Practical information about services such as housing and financial support.

Looking at the research focused on victims and information, Wemmers and Canuto (2002) found that the quality, quantity and timeliness of information can play a direct role in meeting victims’ expectations for the criminal justice process, and their level of satisfaction with that process (see Herman 2003 for a summary of research about procedural justice and victim satisfaction). More recent research on restitution echoed the idea that access to accurate information about the victim’s role in the justice system can assist with expectations for the criminal justice system. The research also found that without access to this information, expectations for both the process and its outcomes may not be met (McDonald 2010). A study in Quebec found that victims’ needs for information about support services, compensation, notification and the right to submit a Victim Impact Statement were not being met (Wemmers and Cyr 2004, pp.69-74).

Adults are most likely to learn from one other—through either personal or peer experiences. Legal information passed on by peers, however, may be inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date (McDonald 2000a). There is a significant body of writing and research about informal learning, defined as learning outside of formal programs and structured courses delivered by a university, college or community centre. Importantly, some research suggests that learning necessarily involves the learner acting, experiencing and reflecting on the information (English 1999; Merriam and Clark 1993).

Learning styles and strategies differ significantly. There are three main types of learners—auditory, visual and kinesthetic (touch)—and various formats that accommodate particular styles and enhance learning. Written materials and infographics, for instance, are most effective for visual learners. Using the appropriate strategies can maximize learning both for children in school and adults in professional or informal situations.

The article by Ponic et al. (2016) in this issue of Victims of Crime Research Digest provides an excellent overview of the most recent trauma-related research in the context of victimization. This section is not intended to duplicate Ponic et al.’s work, but to highlight that trauma’s impact on learning has been recognized for decades and to explain why a trauma-informed approach must be incorporated into PLEI activities that target victims of crime. Common reactions to criminal victimization include anger, fear and avoidance, depression, anxiety and dissociation (from Hill 2003). Coping strategies for victims of crime can be positive (advocacy, empowerment, seeking information and support) and negative (withdrawal, self-criticism, aggression). The specific characteristics of the crime (severity, or use of violence, a weapon or threats), the victim (coping skills, abuse history, personality, demographics) and the system (reaction of officials, perceived and received support) can affect the victim’s distress level. Perceived and actual social support helps moderate the victim’s reaction. Social support has a major effect on decision-making and ability to cope. Not all victims of crime suffer trauma, although Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has been identified as a relatively common result of victimization. The cognitive impacts of trauma can include memory problems, decision-making deficits, increased susceptibility to social influence, disorientation and concentration problems—all of which are important in learning. Practitioners and scholars in many disciplines have known for decades that trauma can impact learning (Horsman 1999; Rundle and Ysabet-Scott 1995).

A decade ago, little research had explored the impact of trauma on learning (Horsman 1999; 1998; 1995). Research done with women survivors of childhood abuse and literacy found that the impact of abuse greatly affects the ability to learn to read both as a child and as an adult (e.g. Horsman 1999; see McDonald 2000a for a summary of this work). In Canada, a few small studies have examined this issue. In a qualitative study of sexual-assault victims whose cases went to court in Nova Scotia, for example, the majority was unaware of some or all of the rights and risks associated with the Victim Impact Statement, even though these had been explained to them by victim-services providers and in the written materials provided to them (Miller 2007, 45). A qualitative study in Toronto found that women who had experienced domestic violence wanted to learn about the criminal justice system in different ways at different points in their own process (McDonald 2000a). In the same study, women stressed the need to incorporate the emotional aspects of their experiences into learning about the legal system.

Looking at the principles outlined in Ponic et al.’s article (Table 1, infra), it would appear that this early research informed the principles of what is now called a trauma-informed or trauma- and violence-informed approach. In further examining Canadians’ information needs, it is important to consider the impact of trauma on learning and how this influences the delivery and format of effective PLEI.

Canadians’ Information Needs on the VBR

Before the VBR came into effect, the Department of Justice surveyed stakeholders about their need for relevant information. In the spring of 2015, the Department distributed an electronic survey to a large list of stakeholders and received a total of 604 responses—38% from individuals and 62% from organizations. The individuals included victims of crime, their friends and family members, as well as members of the general public and those who volunteer or work with victim-services groups. Of the organizations that responded, more than half (54%) were non-governmental.

When asked to identify the key audience for information about the VBR, most respondents cited victims (83%), followed by victim-services organizations (67%), the family and friends of victims (67%), and the general public (53%).

The survey also asked respondents to rank the importance of specific topics on a scale of 1 (most important) to 5 (least important). The largest proportion of respondents (53%) ranked specific victim-related provisions in federal legislation (e.g. testimonial aids, review boards, victim impact statements) as the most or second-most important topic; 52% ranked general information for victims about the criminal justice system as the most or second-most important topic; and 45% ranked general information about the VBR as the most or second-most important topic.

On a scale of 1 (most preferred) to 7 (least preferred), the survey asked respondents to rank various formats for accessing VBR information. The largest proportion of respondents (49%) identified website text as their first or second choice; 48% selected in-person events (e.g. workshops, community events, English as a Second Language classes) as their first or second choice; 44% identified other online formats (e.g. audio, video, webinars, social media) as their first or second choice; and 38% selected print materials as their first or second choice.

When asked whether they or the intended audience they had identified would prefer to access printed materials, 79% said yes, 14% said no and 7% did not know. This preference was relatively consistent across the country and among type of respondent (e.g. 85.6% of groups and 82.5% of individuals).

Respondents were asked to rank (1 most helpful, 4 least helpful) which types of printed materials would be most helpful to the respondent or to the intended audience they had identified. The top choice, selected by 92% of respondents, was short pamphlets, fact sheets and brochures of up to 10 pages; 62% selected booklets of more than 10 pages. Respondents identified novelty items such as pens, magnets, bookmarks, and posters, as less helpful.

Finally, the survey asked respondents to rank how frequently they accessed information through various online formats. A large majority (70%) identified web text as the most-frequently used format; 46% identified online videos accessed through YouTube or other sources. Much smaller percentages of respondents’ first and second choices were formats such as real-time training (e.g. webinars) 36%; social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) 26%; interactive tools (e.g. online forms or decision trees) 15%; audio (e.g. podcasts) 14%; and instant messaging 2%.

The survey also invited respondents to provide comments; a few appear below.

For clients, it is extremely important to not assume, or require that everyone has a computer, a smart phone and/or access to the Internet to receive support, this is especially true for low to even middle income and also for senior/elderly victims and their family members. We come across this issue often and it actually re-victimizes individuals in need. 

The public enjoy and feel confident accessing legal information through community-based organizations, which they find welcoming, supportive, patient, helpful, informative. Not all legal information, guidance, advisory and support services can be most effectively developed or delivered through government offices and media.

Isolated communities require many visual aids, radio ads, and presentations in their communities. Impoverished individuals also become isolated and need to be reached in ways other than those listed here, since they tend not to have access to internet, computers, etc.

Summary

Information about the criminal justice system in general, as well as about specific cases and relevant services, has always been important to victims. Access to relevant, accurate information can help restore a sense of agency to a victim of violent crime. The VBR’s explicit recognition of the right to information provides victim-services organizations with a great opportunity to improve the delivery of relevant information. While meeting the needs of all victims and their family members is challenging, the research findings and principles summarized in this article provide some guidance. Timely access to information can make a significant difference in the lives of those who have been victimized.

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