Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 13

Twenty Years and More of Victims Research: Learning from the Past – Part II

By Susan McDonald

1.0 Introduction

In 2000, the Government of Canada’s Victims of Crime Initiative (VCI) established the Policy Centre for Victim Issues (PCVI) at Justice Canada. The name of the initiative has since changed to the Federal Victims Strategy (FVS).Footnote 11 Policy research was a central component of the initiative from the time the GOC established the VCI and the PCVI and this is still the case 20 years later. This article is Part II of the review of victims of crime research at Justice Canada and focuses on the work done to support the FVS from 2000 to 2020.

At the beginning of the FVS, the PCVI consulted with different stakeholder groups across the country. Academics, victims’ rights advocates, and criminal justice professionalsFootnote 12 met to define key areas for research. Table 1 below summarizes the themes that emerged from each of the different groups by order of priority.

Table 1: Themes Organized by Group and Level of Priority from PCVI Research Consultation (2001)
Priority Academics Victims’ Rights Advocates Criminal Justice Professionals
1. Victim services Training/Attitudes of public officials Victim notification & information
2. Reporting rates for sex crimes Physical structure of courts Victim-witness testimony
3. Judicial interim release Notification & provision of information Victim Witness Assistance Program (i.e., victim services)
4. Victims and plea bargaining Categories of victims (needs assessments) Victims’ rights advocacy (i.e., standing, legal framework)
5. Victim impact statements Media depiction and community perception Plea bargaining
6. Victims and alternative sentencing, conditional Plea bargaining Community supervision
7. Restorative justice Sentencing Victim impact statements
8. Representation of victims in the media Victim impact statements Victims and parole
9. Bibliography on victims’ issues in Canada Compensation & counselling Professionalism in delivering services to victims

Justice Canada has not been able to address every issue that stakeholders have raised over the past twenty years given finite resources and competing demands. As a result, priorities have been established based on the Government of Canada’s legislative and policy agendas.

The PCVI ensures that the federal approach to victim issues is coordinated. It plays a leadership role in ensuring federal collaboration and the development and implementation of policy to give victims a more effective voice in the criminal justice system and to increase access to justice for victims and survivors of crime.Footnote 13 PCVI also develops and provides policy support. This includes developing new victim-related policies, legislation, and programs within Justice Canada and establishing a research program that ensures that policies, legislation, and programs respond effectively to victims’ needs. The PCVI collaborates with Justice Canada colleagues, primarily the Research and Statistics Division (RSD), to deliver this research program. As social science researchers working within Justice Canada, RSD is well positioned to provide research support.

This article picks up where Part I of this review of research ended. It looks at the role research has played as well as the key areas of research on victims of crime issues from 2000 to 2020.

2.0 Twenty Years of Research – Different Types of Research, Serving Different Functions

2.1 Different Types of Research Justice Canada conducts different types of research so it can meet different goals.

Evaluation research – Evaluation research assesses the extent to which the specific goals of a program or a policy initiative have been met, and how the program might have done better in meeting its objectives. Evaluation research has developed specialized tools to identify the objectives of a program or an activity, to map the logic model by which objectives are translated into actions and impacts, and measure the results. The FVS has been evaluated every five years since it started. These evaluations have been led by the Justice Canada Evaluation Division and have been undertaken to meet central agency accountability requirements and inform decision making on continued funding of the FVS.  Over the past 20 years, evaluation and research officers have collaborated on numerous projects to maximize resources where questions and objectives are similar.

Academic research - The objective of academic research is to contribute to the stock of knowledge on a particular topic. The framework upon which the research rests is the body of literature in the field. Basic academic research defines topics for research on the basis of unanswered questions in that literature, though relevance to social or human issues is also a consideration.

In Canada and internationally, there is a significant body of research in areas such as sexual assault, family violence/intimate-partner violence, restorative justice, and victims’ needs. But there is less academic research in evaluating programs and reviewing legislative reform with an empirical (versus a theoretical) lens. In particular, there is very little Canadian academic literature on a number of specific victim-related Criminal Code provisions, such as the federal victim surcharge and restitution.

Community-based research -Advocacy groups and not-for-profit/community-based organizations also regularly conduct research. These groups may partner with academics for methodological expertise, or may do the work themselves. Community-based research has its own value as it can develop capacity within the community itself, as well as drive action and solutions to specific problems.

Policy research -Researchers at Justice Canada have focused their work on areas that are not currently being studied by academics to avoid duplicating their work. By focusing on understanding how the Criminal Code and other pieces of federal legislation are being implemented across the country, Justice Canada is able to tell the story of victims’ experiences with the criminal justice system. By working with other federal departments and agencies – Public Safety Canada, Correctional Service Canada, the Parole Board of Canada, and the RCMP – this story becomes more comprehensive. In the first few years after the creation of the PCVI, RSD commissioned some foundational research to examine victims’ role in the criminal justice system,Footnote 14 victims’ experiences with restorative justice,Footnote 15 and victims’ experiences with plea bargaining.Footnote 16

3.0 Twenty Years of Research – Key Areas

3.1 Research on Victim-related Criminal Code Provisions

From the beginning of the FVS, Justice Canada sought to assess criminal justice professionals’ and other stakeholders’ understanding and awareness of the role of the victim in the criminal justice system. The first major research study was the Multi-Site Survey of Victims of Crime and Criminal Justice Professionals Across Canada (PRA, 2006), which sought insight on a wide range of issues in the criminal justice system as it pertains to victims. The study sought to establish baseline levels of awareness of Crown prosecutors, defence counsel, judges, law enforcement, victim services and victim advocates, victims themselves, judges, and correctional officers. Follow-up studies were conducted for the 2011 and 2018 evaluations of the FVS. These studies targeted only Crown prosecutors, law enforcement, and victim services and used online surveys.

Victim Impact Statements

In the early 2000s, several research projects explored the topic of victim impact statements (VIS). These included focus groups held with victims across the country, surveys of judges,Footnote 17 and  interviews with both victims and criminal justice professionals conducted as part of the Multi-Site Study (PRA 2006)

Amendments have continued to improve the VIS provisions. New provisions allow victims to: read a VIS out loud in court or have someone else read it on their behalf; use testimonial aids to deliver VIS at sentencing; and prepare a VIS for a mental health review board hearing, or for a parole board hearing (these are called impact statements and fall under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act).

In the very first issue of the Victims of Crime Research Digest (2008), criminologist Julian Roberts prepared a review of social science research on VIS from the previous 20 years.Footnote 18  Further research has included monitoring VIS case law (Roberts and Manikis 2012; Manikis 2018).Footnote 19 Since then, with the introduction of Community Impact Statements (CIS) in 2011 and the subsequent broadening of their use through the Victims Bill of Rights, case law has been an appropriate approach to monitor how these are being used at sentencing. Other research projects included understanding the community impact of hate crime with two case studies and included the CIS used at sentencing (Fashola 2011).Footnote 20

The criminal justice system has gradually accepted that the VIS is a voice for the victim at the sentencing hearing. Questions remain, however, regarding the weight that sentencing judges should give to it and what the victim can include in their statement, as well as procedures that may differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. 

Federal Victim Surcharge
Starting in 2005 - 06, RSD conducted studies in New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan on the use and enforcement of the federal victim surcharge. Many of the same challenges that had been identified in the early research from the 1980s remained. These included a lack of enforcement where sentences did not involve a fine and little understanding of how the funds collected were used. In 2013, the Government of Canada introduced legislation that removed judges’ discretion to waive the surcharge in cases of undue hardship, making it mandatory. Following these changes, Justice Canada conducted a study to determine how the changes were being implemented and presented the results in a report entitled The Federal Victim Surcharge – The 2013 Amendments and Their Implementation in Nine Jurisdictions.Footnote 21 The study could not draw any conclusions because there were insufficient data on the amount of revenue collected. A series of cases challenging the constitutionality of this legislation went to the Supreme Court of Canada and in December 2018, the federal victim surcharge provision was struck down. As a result, the waiver for undue hardship was reintroduced in 2019. Further research in the coming years will determine the impact of these changes.

One sentencing option is restitution where offenders pay their victims for their losses. Sometimes it happens directly and sometimes through the court. Justice Canada conducted several studies in Saskatchewan to understand how the Adult Restitution Program, the only one of its kind in Canada in 2008, was working. Justice Canada followed up that study with an early evaluation of Saskatchewan’s Restitution Civil Enforcement Program, another first in the country. These studies have provided valuable information and lessons learned for other jurisdictions that have sought to implement programs to better support victims in cases where restitution has been ordered.Footnote 22

Testimonial Aids
In 2006, significant changes were made to the Criminal Code provisions on the use of testimonial aids in court proceedings. RSD did several studies in the subsequent years, including a survey of judges (Bala et al. 2010), literature reviews, court observation studies and original data collection. In 2018, the PCVI hosted a knowledge exchange on testimonial aids. The 2018 Digest article, “Helping Victims Find their Voice: Testimonial Aids in Criminal Proceedings”Footnote 23 summarized the research done by Justice Canada on testimonial aids. Over the years, testimonial aids have become more accepted by Crown, defence and judges. Today, support dogs are the newest testimonial aid for vulnerable witnesses.Footnote 24

The report Victim Privacy and the Open Court Principle by Jamie Cameron (2004)is about victim privacy in general, but focuses on the crime of sexual assault. Professor Cameron traces the development of the right to victim privacy under s.7 of the Charter, when the Supreme Court of Canada placed this right on an equal plane with the defendant’s right of full answer and defence. In 2019, Professor Cameron updated the report, adding in the social context of recent high-profile sexual assault cases and social media movements, including #MeToo.

Victims’ Rights
The Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR) came into force in July of 2015. It ensured four rights for victims of crime at the federal level:

  • the right to information,
  • the right to protection,
  • the right to participation, and
  • the right to restitution.

Victims who believe that their rights have been breached by a federal department can file a complaint through its complaints process. Justice Canada has monitored the implementation of this legislation through case law and has also been working to improve data collection on key national indicators such as VIS and requests for restitution.Footnote 25

3.2 Research on Access to Justice for Victims

Victim/Witness Needs and Services

Victim services and other programming are designed to respond to victims’ needs and are available across the country. Victim services is primarily the responsibility of the provinces and territories, except for federal victim services, which are provided for victim/witnesses in the three territories. These programs are the responsibility of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which prosecutes all criminal offences in the territories. Correctional Service Canada and the Parole Board of Canada provide services for victims of offenders in federal custody.

An entire area of research and evaluation is devoted to examining these programs and services. A number of provinces and territories have evaluated delivery models for victim services. Justice Canada did a qualitative study on the professionalization of victim services, interviewing practitioners, administrators, and academics about their views on appropriate qualifications for those providing victim services. The resulting report, The Professionalization of Victim Services in Canada (2007), found that the service delivery model (volunteers vs. full time paid staff) impacted views on the importance of education (real life experience vs. a university degree) and that a similar debate had circulated through sexual assault centres and women’s shelters in previous years. Ultimately, regardless of the delivery model, the report concluded that all those – volunteer or otherwise – who worked with victims required training to be able to support victims at any stage in the criminal justice system.

In line with the need for adequate training and support for those working with victims in the criminal justice system, Dr. James Hill developed a manual for working with victims of crime based on a review of the literature. The manual was so well received that a second edition was produced, with specific chapters added on victims of terrorism and victims of hate crimes. It remains an important tool for training victim services providers.Footnote 26

Justice Canada provided funding to the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics (CCJCSS) at Statistics Canada from 2000 to 2010 to develop and conduct the Victim Services Survey every three years. This was a census of all Justice Canada-funded services across the country. Victim Services Survey results were published up until its last cycle in 2010 - 2011. More recently, Justice Canada has worked with CCJCSS and the provinces and territories to develop national indicators on victims services that are reported annually. However, with varying definitions of “victim” and different ways of counting caseloads, there remain many challenges.

Justice Canada also catalogued the programs and services considered to be part of the formal victim services programming in each jurisdiction. The resulting report, Victim Services in Canada, released in 2018, also provides information on related agencies that provide critical services to victims of crime.

Child Advocacy Centres

In 2010, Justice Canada began funding the enhancement or development of Child Advocacy Centres (CACs) in Canada. CACs provide an array of services to reduce the trauma of child victims/witnesses and their families as they navigate the criminal justice system. In the early years, Justice Canada played a significant role in providing research and policy support to help build CACs. An article in the 2013 issue of the Victims of Crime Research DigestFootnote 27 details the type of research Justice Canada did to assist organizations. In addition, research and evaluation officers collaborated on a six site review of the development and impact of CACs.Footnote 28 At the beginning of the initiative only five organizations resembled the CAC model. There are now at least 25 CACs with doors open, and another dozen or so in a feasibility or development phase. Justice Canada continues to document the growth of the CAC using mapping software and monitors research that informs the Canadian guidelines for CACs.Footnote 29 Recent research (2019) explores how relationships among members of multidisciplinary teams at CACs across the country are being navigated and documents the variety of approaches to the relationship between the Crown and CACs.Footnote 30

3.3 Research on Substantive Offences

Sexual Assault

Under the FVS, small studies on aspects of the 1990s sexual assault legislation were conducted to prepare for the parliamentary review of these legislative changes, which took place in 2011. A final report from the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs was released in December 2012.

In the research report, Words Are Not Enough: Sexual Assault – Legislation, Education and Information byRenate Mohr (2002), the author presents the results of qualitative research, which involved 32 interviews with Crown prosecutors, sexual assault centre counsellors, and judges in Toronto and Ottawa. Almost all the participants commented that legislation alone cannot succeed in achieving the goal of encouraging the reporting of sexual assaults.

In the report Bill C-46: Caselaw in the post-Mills Era by Susan McDonald et al. (2004) the authors followed a similar approach to the case law review by Karen Busby a few years earlier.Footnote 31 They reviewed a total of 48 cases from December 1, 1999, through to June 30, 2003. This report was highlighted in the parliamentary review of the regime by the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, which released its report and recommendations in December 2012.Footnote 32 Since the release of the Committee’s report , Justice Canada has continued to review and to publish regularly on case law via the Victims Digest articles on third party records.Footnote 33

Building on the research by Tina Hattem (2000) described in Part I, Justice Canada conducted research with survivors of sexual assault – one study with men, one with women from three cities, and one study specific to the North.Footnote 34 These three studies showed that while significant efforts have been made in training criminal justice professionals and improving services for victims/survivors, few survivors report the incidents to police or have high levels of confidence in the criminal justice system.

In a widely publicized 2017 Globe and Mail investigation, Robyn Doolittle examined unfounded rates of sexual assault at different police services across the country. Justice Canada had previously examined this issue at police services in BC through a 2006 study done by Linda Light and Gisela Ruebecht.Footnote 35 While Canada’s sexual assault legislation is progressive, prevailing attitudes hinder reporting sexual assault and getting convictions in cases that do move through the system. Justice Canada chaired a working group of provincial and territorial government officials to produce a report on the criminal justice system’s response to adult sexual assault.Footnote 36 This report, released in 2018, was informed by Justice Canada-funded studies on Indigenous women’s experiences with the systemFootnote 37 on the neurobiology of trauma in the context of sexual assaultFootnote 38 and on police and Crown perspectives of sexual assault in the system.

Criminal Harassment and Family Violence Research
Until recently, responsibility for policy and research on family violence fell under the Family Violence Initiative. Over the years, RSD has done research on the Partner Assault Response Program in Ontario,Footnote 39 a review of case law on the spousal violence aggravating factor at sentencing,Footnote 40 intimate-partner violence risk assessment tools,Footnote 41 and comparing intimate-partner and non-intimate-partner homicide cases.Footnote 42 This issue of the Digest describes current work in this area in the article “Developing a Family Violence Identification and Response Tool.”

Some research has also looked at criminal harassment, including an annotated bibliography (2011), as well as a study that included interviews with victims in the Atlantic provinces.Footnote 43

3.4 Costing and Mapping

RSD conducted two significant projects on costing and victimization in 2009, the first studies to measure the economic impacts of victimization in Canada: An Economic Estimation of the Impact of Spousal Violence in Canada and An Economic Estimation of Violent Victimization in Canada, which covered all non-spousal incidents. The work involved external experts from England and Australia, economists, and experts on violence against women.

Justice Canada has led several projects that use Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping software. They include documenting fatalities in impaired driving cases, tracking the rise of child advocacy centres across the country, as well as identifying the availability of victim services in the North.Footnote 44

3.5 Research in the North and with Indigenous Communities

At the outset of the FVS, Justice Canada conducted a number of research studies on Northern and Indigenous issues. These include:

  • Creating a Framework for the Wisdom of the Community: Review of Victim Services in Nunavut, Northwest and Yukon Territories (2003) by Mary Beth Levan. This study included comprehensive research on the services available to victims of crime in each community in the territories, the traditional Inuit and First Nations processes to deal with violent crime and victimization, and community responses to violent crime and victimization.
  • Criminal Victimization Among First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples (2006) by Larry Chartrand and Celeste McKay. This literature review examined Indigenous peoples’ over-representation as victims of crime. Many of the findings of this study are relevant to First Nations and Inuit peoples in the three territories, i.e., high rates of victimization, victimization of women, youth victimization, suspected FASD, and under-reporting of victimization, all of which are embedded in colonization.

RSD has collaborated with Indigenous organizations to produce a large report on promising practices to support women and girls’ safety.Footnote 45 RSD has also worked with CCJCSS to better define relationships between the accused/offender and Indigenous victims in the Homicide Survey.Footnote 46 Justice Canada also contributes to the cost of the General Social Survey on Victimization in the three territories every five years, where in-person interviews yield much higher quality data.

3.6 Public Opinion Research

In 2010, Justice Canada conducted public opinion research to gauge Canadians’ awareness of victim issues, including the availability of victim services. A few years later, when the Canadian Victim Bill of Rights was introduced, Justice Canada asked stakeholders what they wanted to know about the legislation and how they wanted to learn about it. Articles on both these studies can be found online.Footnote 47

3.7 Other Issues

RSD has been involved in exploratory research, mostly involving in-depth interviews with key informants, to look at how to use technology to improve victim services.Footnote 48 It has also worked on the darker side of technology, particularly around online child sexual exploitation,Footnote 49 identify theft,Footnote 50 and cyberbullying.Footnote 51 Public Safety Canada leads on these files, and Justice Canada is committed to working collaboratively, contributing a victims’ lens wherever appropriate.

Other research has focused on elder abuse, which included a review of federal and provincial legislation, and a study looking at cases from the Ottawa Police Services Elder Abuse Unit.Footnote 52 RSD has also done work on victims at the International Criminal Court,Footnote 53 community sentences,Footnote 54 the needs of victims of hate crimes,Footnote 55 as well as memorializing the victims of terrorism.Footnote 56


During the past 20 years, research has flourished under the FVS, and Justice Canada has developed a body of government literature on a wide variety of issues about victims of crime. Research has played an important role in developing and monitoring policy, programs, and legislation, and will continue to do so. Justice Canada has employed traditional social science quantitative and qualitative methods – surveys, interviews, focus groups, and the like – along with case law reviews, costing techniques, and mapping using GIS software, to improve governments’, advocates’ and practitioners’ understanding of victim issues. Interestingly, what research found in the 1980s – that victims want and need information – is still true today; what has evolved is a greater understanding of the impact of trauma on victims of crime and the importance of social identity. This article could not cover all the research done in the past 20 years so readers are invited to further explore the website.

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