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

ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND (SEPTEMBER 18, 2000)

Background

This focus group conducted by ARC Applied Research Consultants for the Department of Justice Canada took place on Monday September 18 in the downtown St. John’s facilities of Market Insights Inc. Seven names of potential participants were provided to us by victim service programs in the area. Of these seven individuals, five attended the group. The background characteristics of the participants relevant to the topic of the discussion were as follows:

Questions Posed to the Group and Findings

How did you first become aware that you could prepare and submit a VIS? Was this early enough (to complete statement before sentencing)?

One participant had been generally aware of victim impact statements going back seven years. She had a long history of harassment or stalking from that period of time to the present. Another participant had received a call from victim services shortly after the crime and was asked if he wanted to submit a VIS. He subsequently did so by fax. All of the other participants were also contacted by victim services who met with them personally to provide information on victim impact statements and help in their completion.

Some of the participants were contacted by victim services shortly after the crime. Others were contacted as the trial date approached. None of the participants reported feeling that they were under any real time pressure to complete their statements. The exception to this was a circumstance in which a charge which had initially been laid was dropped in favour of another so that a second statement had to be prepared in a fairly short period of time. In this latter case, the victim was informed that a guilty plea was imminent. She then quickly prepared and submitted her statement.

One participant recalled being warned that she should not submit her statement until as close to the sentencing date as possible. This was to avoid giving access to defence counsel before it was absolutely necessary in order to prevent defence counsel from using information in the statement against the Crown’s case. No other participants were given this kind of advice on the timing of the submission of their statements.

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

The unanimous view was that the decision on whether or not to prepare a statement was left to the victim. They felt that their victim assistance workers had presented both sides of the choice, and left it to them to decide.

What is your understanding of what victim impact statements are supposed to do?

One participant said, “It was your voice in the courtroom”. In this light, it was seen as important for the victim to complete a statement; it had nothing to do with the offender. Another said, “You’re not just a number; it gives you a voice and a chance to speak out in court”. This same participant thought that the preparation of the statement itself was a cathartic experience for her. Some saw the statement as preventing them from becoming anonymous in the system.

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?

In terms of the specific content of the statements, the participants indicated that they had either directly or over the phone received a list of sixteen elements which should be included in a statement. All reported that the information provided to them was well explained and did not leave them with unanswered questions about their statements.

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

There was no printed form. Instead, they were provided with a checklist of things which could or could not be included. Examples of impacts which could be included were financial impacts and emotional impacts. Most found the instructions clear enough that little assistance was needed to complete the statements.

Where uncertainties arose, the participants noted the ready availability of help from the victim assistance program. In one case, the victim assistance worker wrote down the statement as it was dictated to her by the victim. In this case, the victim would not have been able to prepare the statement on her own. No other assistance was required or provided to the victims as they prepared their statements.

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

One participant said that she was not allowed to refer to the accused at all. She said that she was allowed to say how she felt but could not refer to the accused directly.  She said that she was provided with a list of what she could and could not say and found that quite constraining.

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

Some of the types of information which were not allowed to be included in the VIS but which the victims thought should be allowed included specific suggestions on sentencing (e.g., prohibitions from drinking alcohol or requirements to adhere to medical/drug prescriptions).  In one case, the victim said that she had requested that the Crown ask the judge for some conditions to be included in the sentence. However, these requests were not acted upon. The victim said that she was told that the judge decreed that the victim was not allowed to have specific input on what should happen to the offender on conviction. This came as a surprise to the victim.

There was general, but not unanimous agreement that the participants would have liked to have had an opportunity to identify conditions of sentence which would be appropriate for them.

No types of information beyond references to specific elements of sentencing were identified as things that the participants would have liked to include in their statements but were not allowed.

While the participants could not recall being given any specific guidelines on the length of their statements, most recognized the benefit of keeping the statement as short as possible.

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

Several of the female participants were concerned that their preparation of a statement would make the accused ‘even madder than he already was’. There was a related concern that if the accused were not subsequently found guilty, then the accused would be at large and would know that the victim had made an effort through his or her statement to present their views to the court and influence the sentence. One of the participants was, in fact, threatened by the family members of the accused following the submission of her statement. In this case, the statement was read aloud in court.

No particular concerns were expressed about the privacy aspects of the statements, although one participant asked whether or not the press had access to these statements once they had been submitted.

On the privacy issue, one of the participants said that she would prefer that her statement not be read out in court, because there are spectators in the room who have no connection to the case and the details of the statement are none of their business.

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

In all cases, the statements were turned into victim services. Most were handed in personally to a representative of victim services. Once the statement had been reviewed by the assistance workers, participants were not aware specifically of what happened to the statements after that. They were also not clear on who would have access to their statements either before or after the conclusion of their trial.

No one had given any thought to whether or not the statement might be available for a future parole hearing. They were however generally open to this as a reasonable use of these documents. There was some concern that the contents of the statement might have changed since it was initially prepared with long time lapses between the sentencing and a parole period. In this circumstance, perhaps a revised statement could be prepared.

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

The participants reported that the victim assistance worker reviewed their draft statement and identified to them some minor revisions. In no case were major changes made to the statements by the victim assistance worker. With these minor revisions, all statements were submitted as prepared by the victims.

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

Most of the participants reported seeing the judge physically receive their statement. Others simply faxed their statement to the court and were not aware of what happened to it after that.

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?

All participants were aware that defence counsel would have access to their statements. They were also aware that the accused would likely also have access to the statement. Most of the participants were not aware specifically of whether or not the accused saw their statement. None of the victims indicated that knowing what they know now, they would not prepare a statement in the future given that the defence and the accused person would likely see it.

One participant expressed the view that some accused would be positively receptive to the information in the statement, while others would, to the contrary enjoy hearing about the pain they had inflicted on the victim another time. One of the participants reported that he did not want to reveal to the accused any further detail on how the accused’s behaviour had been harmful or hurtful. A second participant confirmed that she saw this issue the same way.

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

Two of the participants were questioned on the stand about the contents of their statements. Both felt that they gave as good as they got from the defence lawyer, and were generally supported in this by the judge. No active role in this phase of the trial was reported for the prosecutors. Both of these participants reported that they felt free to answer back when the defence lawyer said something they thought was off base.

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 reported that they were generally informed by the victim assistance program that they might be called to answer questions from the defence on the contents of their statement.

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?

Only one of the participants was asked if she wanted to read her statement aloud in court, but she declined. She thought it would be too emotional.  Another reported that he was given the option of presenting it himself. Of the remainder that did not know that oral presentation was an option, opinion was mixed as to whether or not they would like to do this. In part, this reluctance stemmed from the perceived restrictions on what was permissible in these statements.

There was strong support for victims, in principal, being given the option of reading their statements aloud. In part, this support arose from the view that some judges may not read these statements very completely or carefully. If the statement were presented orally, this problem could be reduced.

Did the judge refer to your VIS in sentencing?

None of the participants reported having heard the judge in their case make any specific reference to their statement. Nevertheless, most expressed the confidence that the judge had in fact read their statement. In some cases, the statement was before the judge in court, and he appeared to read it.

(Note that in one case the victim impact statement was read out in court after the sentence was given. This individual thought that the judge should have read the statement before the sentence was given, but was not clear about when it was, in fact, read.)

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

On balance, the participants in this group indicated that they would, given the circumstances, complete a VIS in the future.

Did you get anything positive out of the experience?

The participants were generally of the opinion that they did derive some benefit from completing the statement. In some cases this had to do with an impact on sentence, while in others it enabled them to express in their own words how the crime had affected them and to put this information before the court.

The participant who had been the victim of the stalking was confident that her statement had made a difference to the sentence imposed. Others were not so sure. In one case, the victim’s statement was read after the sentence was imposed rather than before. In this case, the victim was not aware of whether or not the judge had seen the statement before the sentence was imposed.

Other Comments

There was some support for the idea of a second statement which would be for the judges eyes only. This statement might include specific suggestions on conditions of sentence for example banning from the use of alcohol or compliance with medication. On this topic it was acknowledged that these types of discussion were held with the Crown. In some cases, they were brought forward to the judge by the Crown and in others they were not.

One participant recommended that the accused should be required to stand up and face the victim as the statement is being read.

One victim reported feeling that the person giving the statement should not be required to stand in the witness box. Instead, they should be made to feel more comfortable and at ease as they give their statement. She saw this formal requirement as less desirable than the anonymity given to the accused as he or she sits at their table with their lawyers.