Victims of Crime Research Series
Summary Report on Victim Impact Statement Focus Groups

Appendix B (cont'd)

Findings of Focus Group on Victim Impact Statements Held in Six Sites

TORONTO (MARCH 28, 2000)

Background

The Toronto Victim Impact Statement Focus Group was conducted in the downtown offices of Canadian Facts on the 28th of March, 2000. Of the eleven potential participants whose names were provided to us by victim/witness assistance programs in the area, seven agreed to attend. Of these, five did, in fact, attend the group. Of these five, four were women. The sole man in the group was married to one of the women participants. All had been victims of violent and/or sexual crimes. One was the parent of a murder victim. One of the couple’s children had been abused by another, older child. Only one of the participants had testified during their trial. All but one of the cases concluded in a guilty plea.

Questions Posed to the Group and Findings

How did you first become aware that you could prepare and submit a VIS?

All of the participants completed their Victim Impact Statements following a referral to the local Victim Assistance program. With one exception, the participants reported that they had a reasonable period of time in which to prepare their statement. The exception was the married couple who were given only two hours to prepare their statement. In this case, there was a two-hour adjournment prior to sentencing to allow for the preparation of the statement. In this case, the participants were particularly dissatisfied because they believed that a plea was negotiated between Defence and the Crown prior to their completing their statement. As a result, they have no confidence that any weight was given to their statement in sentencing.

The participants had difficulty understanding why there would be any time pressure imposed on them by the court to consider and complete their statements given the extent of the delays that are otherwise characteristic of the criminal trial process. This contributed to a general feeling on their part that the concerns and s of the accused were given disproportionate weight in the trial process compared to their own.

Some participants were told by the Crown that it is best to delay completion and submission of the Victim Impact Statement until as late as possible in the trial process (Editor’s Note: This advice was offered because the victim impact statement is only for the purposes of sentencing and once submitted to the court or crown, the crown would be required to disclose the statement to the Defence immediately). In one case where an abrupt guilty plea was entered, the victim’s spouse was not able to prepare his own statement of the effect of the crime on him because he was at work that day and could not be brought to court in time.

Were you actively encouraged to complete a VIS, or was it presented as more of an option available to you?

For most participants, preparation of a statement was presented to them as an option. However, some were determined to complete the statement regardless, while one other had the statement presented to her as essential and she was encouraged strongly to complete it. This pressure came from the Victim Assistance Program with which the participant had contact.

What is your understanding of what Victim Impact Statements are supposed to do?

When the concept of Victim Impact Statements was first presented to the participants, they all believed that it would affect the sentence given in their cases. This belief was embedded in the larger context of confidence that the system would, in fact, achieve justice for them in their cases.

However, the strong feeling among the group was that the statements that they had prepared did not significantly affect the sentences given to the accused in their cases. The modest exception to this general finding is one participant who indicated that a couple of specific things that she requested in her statement were included in the sentence.

In terms of their understanding of the overall objectives of Victim Impact Statements, the participants did not identify any objectives for these statements beyond the impact anticipated on sentencing. No mention was made of any therapeutic value associated with statements or even the general concept of providing a means to present the victim’s perspective in their own words.

One participant indicated that a goal of Victim Impact Statements is to ensure that the perpetrator hears from the victim what the effects of the crime were on the victim.

What information were you given about Victim Impact Statements and their use? Was this information clear and complete? Did you have any unanswered questions about VIS at that time?

General guidance on what should be included in a Victim Impact Statement was provided to the participants through the materials given to them by Victim Assistance programs. Their understanding was that no ‘evidence’ should be included, and that the statement should be limited to discussion of the impacts of the crime on the victim.

What problems if any did you have in completing your statement? Did you request anyone’s assistance to fill it to fill it out? Was this assistance helpful?

Staff of the Victim Assistance programs were described as very helpful and supportive to participants as they completed their statements. Guidance was provided on what could and could not be included in the statements.

Those participants who used a form to prepare their statements reported it as difficult to use and cramped. In one case, the statement prepared by the victims was thrown out because it was not presented on the prescribed form. These victims added material because they found the space available on the form to be inadequate. In this particular case, the judge read the form and then told the victims that it could not be accepted. One participant indicated that, had she been given a form, she would not have used it. She strongly wished to tell the story in her own words and in her own way. The guidelines and form presented to some of the participants was characterized as telling them only what they couldn’t include in their statement, without being helpful as to what they could include.

An important role was described for Victim Assistance Programs in helping victims to draft and review their statements.

Were you told of any restrictions on the types of information which could be included in a VIS?

The group’s general understanding was that information which could be regarded as evidence was not permissible in Victim Impact Statements.

Would there have been other information that you would have liked to include in your VIS?

The type of material edited from one statement was intended to respond to comments made about the victim’s family by the accused’s lawyer during the trial. In this instance, the victim wanted to refute these statements in her Victim Impact Statement for the record. This material was deleted from the statement.

In another statement, reference was made to the need for the sibling of an assault victim to attend counselling, and to the reduced school performance of these individuals following the crime. These types of information were not permitted in their statements. The rationale for this deletion was that it could not be proved that there was a relationship between the crime and these behavioural changes on the part of the victims and their siblings.

Some material was deleted from another statement on the apparent grounds that it was simply objectionable to the accused and his lawyer. The participant could perceive no other rationale for these deletions beyond that.

Did you have any concerns (e.g., privacy, safety ) about completing the VIS?

Some concern was expressed that the content of the Victim Impact Statement might provoke some kind of vengeful approach by the accused’s friends and family to the victim and her family. This risk was of particular concern to one participant whose assaultive spouse was in and out of custody prior to ad during the trial period.

What happened with your VIS after you completed it? Were you kept up-to-date?

Participants did not know what happened to their statements once they were completed.

Were any parts of your VIS changed? If yes, by whom? Why did this happen? What was your reaction to this?

As noted above, one statement was edited at the request of the Defence lawyer on the grounds that the content would be offensive to his client. The participants found this offensive to themselves.

Do you know if a judge received your VIS? How do you know this?

Of all the participants, one gave her statement orally, the couple had their statement rejected because it was not on the approved form, and two were submitted in writing.

Did the offender receive a copy of your completed VIS Did you know that this would happen? If not, had you known, would you still have decided to complete a VIS?

Most participants indicated that they were aware that Defence would have access to their statement.

Were you questioned by the Defence lawyer on your VIS? What were your reactions to this?

The participants did not know that the content of their statements could be challenged in the courtroom by the accused and his lawyer.

Did you know that a Defence lawyer might question you on your VIS? If not, would this have caused you to change your mind about completing a VIS?

The participants found it quite offensive that the Defence lawyers are able to challenge and contradict in the courtroom the statements they have prepared, when they are unable to respond to these comments and criticisms themselves. This was particularly troublesome in relation to the content of the statement regarding the victims’ feelings about their experiences as victims.

Some participants were uncomfortable with the idea that if Defence were to be prevented from challenging and criticizing the content of the statements they had prepared, then they would themselves be limited in their statements to content which referred to them. Rather, they held to the notion that they should be allowed to refute claims made by the Defence in the course of the trial about the victim and the circumstances of the crime. One of the purposes of this content would be to communicate to the accused that statements made by the Defence that the victims regarded as misleading or untruthful were not to go unchallenged by the victims.

The participants were troubled by the fact that during the course of the trial, they were obligated to sit quietly and listen to statements from the Defence which they regard as untruthful. Yet, when their turn came to present their view of the impacts of the crime, these statements were subject to challenge by the Defence, and they were not allowed to respond to these challenges. The participants perceive a stark imbalance between the ability to defend themselves that the trial process affords accused persons, and the severe limitations placed on the victim’s ability to express, in their own words and without challenge, the affects of the crime on them and their families.

Did you ask if you could read your VIS aloud? Were you permitted to do so?  Had you had this opportunity, would you have taken it? Yes/no, why not?

One participant was denied the opportunity to read her statement aloud. The Crown read portions of it in her place.

Did the judge refer to your VIS in sentencing?

One participant greatly appreciated the fact that the judge explicitly acknowledged the content of her statement when handing down his sentence. The participants generally expressed the view that the justice system is still tilted strongly towards the accused rather than the victims. Their opportunity to prepare and submit a Victim Impact Statement did not change this perception. In fact, it may have aggravated it, since the victims have no confidence that any account was taken of their statements by the court.

Would you go through the process of completing a VIS again knowing what you know now?

Given their view that the statements they prepared had no affect on sentencing, none of the participants in this group would prepare a statement in the future, knowing what they do now about the process and its effectiveness. A minority of participants indicated having obtained any benefit from completing their statements, limited to those who were able to make an oral presentation of their statement in court. Some participants believed that lawyers do not support the use of the Victim Impact Statements, simply because they slow down the process.

Participants recognize that they don’t really know what the appropriate sentence should be in an individual case. As a result, it is not obvious how they would assess whether or not their statement had an impact on the length of the sentence given. However, where they believe that the sentence was negotiated earlier between the Crown and the Defence, it is clear to them that the statement had no opportunity to have an impact. They would, however, appreciate some explicit recognition by the judge that the statement had been read. For the participants, the only test of effectiveness of the Victim Impact Statements is their effect on sentencing. The participants regard the perceived reliance on precedent in terms of sentence length as so accepted and powerful that little room is left for Victim Impact Statements to be taken into account in sentencing.

Did you get anything positive out of the experience?

The parent whose son was murdered reported that the only positive thing about the VIS process was the chance it provided her to “speak” for him at the trial and remind the court that he was more than just another file.

Did you experience any frustration with the process?

In the case of a murder trial, the participant’s perception was that the justice system perceived that nothing could be done for the victim of the crime since he was dead. The participant’s view was that the trial was conducted in a legalistic, dispassionate manner where the only issue at stake was the fact that the state’s laws had been violated. She perceived little concern in the process for the impact on the victim or on the victim’s family as expressed in her statement.

In the case of the participants whose statement was not admitted because it was on the wrong form, this was a decision of the Crown, not the judge. The opportunity to present a Victim Impact Statement was described by this couple as “the one thing that the system allowed them to do to participate in the trial,” and even this was denied them because they had not used the proper form.

Some participants expressed concern that the sentences were largely predetermined through negotiation between Crown and Defence even before their Victim Impact Statements were prepared. The participants believed that no consideration should be given to sentencing until the Victim Impact Statements have been read.

The strongest conclusion reached at the end of the group is that either the Defence should not be able to criticize and attack the statement or, at a minimum, the victim should be able to respond to these attacks at the time. Some members of one participant’s family declined to submit Victim Impact Statements which they had already completed when they learned that Defence would have access to them.

What would have made the process better/easier for you?

The group concluded that no consideration should be given to sentencing until the statement has been prepared, submitted and read. This includes cases in which plea negotiations between Crown and Defence occur.

The group also strongly supports the of victims to give their statements orally, so everyone in the court can hear them speak in their own words, including the accused.

Other Comments

The participants in this group objected to the term “Victim Impact Statement” because, as they see it, the statement does not enable them to have an “impact” on sentencing or anything else to do with the trial. They did not recognize that the sense of the term as intended was that it would discuss the impact of the crime on the victim.