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
This focus group conducted for the Department of Justice Canada took place on Wednesday September 20 in the downtown Halifax focus group facilities of Corporate Research Associates. Sixteen names of potential participants were provided to us by victim service programs in the area. Of these sixteen individuals, five attended the group. We believe that the surprisingly low turnout may have been caused in part by traffic congestion resulting from several traffic accidents which occurred during the evening rush hour. The background characteristics of the participants relevant to the topic of the discussion were as follows:
- there were three men and two women in the group;
- all had been victims of serious offences, including sexual assault, assault with a weapon and child sexual abuse;
- some participants had experience with more than one statement; and,
- the other two participants were family members of individuals who had been murdered, in one case by an impaired driver.
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)?
The participants in this group reported several sources of initial information on victim impact statements. Included here were social service workers, Crown Prosecutors, and (most often) victim service workers.
Participants in this group reported different experiences in terms of when they were told to submit their statements. One was told to submit her statement before the trial started. Others were told to hold on to their statements until a verdict had been reached. The group participants were not aware of any reasons given to them to hold onto their statements (such as the access that early preparation would provide to the defence counsel).
One participant had prepared the first draft of his statement on the assumption that the accused was going to enter a guilty plea. The accused subsequently changed his mind on this, resulting in the need for the victim to edit from his statement a variety of information which would be brought forward as evidence in the trial.
With respect to time pressure, one participant had received the victim impact statement form by fax, had completed it that evening and returned it by fax the next morning. This seemed like a rushed experience.
Another participant reported that sentencing was delayed following an unexpected guilty plea in order to bring the statement before the court.
Were you actively encouraged to complete a VIS, or was it presented as more of an option available to you?
The participants in this group described their experience as having been presented a choice. Any encouragement given was mild at best. In one case, the participant was encouraged by the police to complete a statement.
What is your understanding of what victim impact statements are supposed to do?
The main purpose perceived for victim impact statements was to tell the judge the victim’s story, including how his or her life had changed as a result of the crime. The primary effect expected, however, was to see some impact on the sentence imposed, to reflect the impact of the crime on the victim. Some participants also wanted the accused to hear directly from them, including through oral presentation of their statements, how their actions had affected them.
Another expectation was that the statement would allow the victim to provide information beyond answers to the questions posed by the lawyers during the trial.
However, many participants in the group were not convinced that their statements had had any real affect on the sentences imposed.
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?
Most of the participants received written descriptions from victim services of what victim impact statements are to include and what purposes they are to serve. With the exception of one participant who is unable to read or write, most of the other participants wrote their statements out long hand. One was typed and faxed in by the participant. None of the other statements provided by the victims were subsequently typed by anyone at victim services or anywhere else.
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?
The participants worked their way through the form provided by victim services, typically with some assistance from victim services. Some expressed concern about the meaning of the categories used on the form. Some found the format of the form with the specific segments to be difficult for them as they were unable to tell the story in their own words in a narrative form as a result of the headings. Some suggested that different versions of the form might be developed for different types of crimes.
The participants recognized that the victim services workers could only provide guidance on what was permissible or not. They clearly understood that the statement was to reflect their own experiences and words and not those of anyone else.
All participants were satisfied that any assistance they required to complete their statements had been provided to them, typically by victim services.
Some noted being aware that their statement might in the future be used as information in a parole hearing.
Were you told of any restrictions on the types of information which could be included in a VIS?
Among the topics which were not permitted on the forms were information about the facts of the case and about the offender prior to the crime which was the subject of the statement. Other exclusions were negative characteristics of the offender personally, and factual information about the crime itself. In sum, the statement must be “about me”, as reported by the participants. Information about the impacts of the crime on friends and family members was also seen as permissible.
All but one of the participants in this group had testified during their trial. Consequently some of the specific things about the offence that they might have wanted to include in their victim impact statements were raised by them during their testimony. They recognized that if a guilty plea is entered, there might be information they would like to include in their statements which would otherwise have come out in their testimony (had it been necessary).
Would there have been other information that you would have liked to include in your VIS?
Some participants indicated that they would have liked to add some new content to their statements following the trial but was not allowed to do so. This new material would have made reference to the experience of being a witness at the trial and responded to some of the points raised by the defence during the trial.
Did you have any concerns (e.g., privacy, safety ) about completing the VIS?
Opinion was evenly divided among the group in terms of whether or not they had any concerns regarding safety or privacy. Those who did have privacy concerns were most concerned that the accused would have access to their statement. In part, this concern arose from the recognition that the offender might use the information in the statement to “torment” the victim in the future.
The participant who had been a victim of child sexual abuse was told by the judge in this case that he could not give much weight to the material provided in the statement due to the passage of thirty years since the offence. Despite this, the participant was glad to have had a chance to express in his own words how the crime had affected him. He also took some comfort from the fact that with his statement on record, if any other victims of the same offender come forward, then the information he has provided will be available to the court for trials involving these other victims.
No one expressed any concerns about their safety as a result of completing their statements.
What happened with your VIS after you completed it? Were you kept up-to-date?
Once submitted, the statements were passed on to their victim services workers who filed them with the court where they were held until the accused is found guilty or pleads guilty.
Were any parts of your VIS changed? If yes, by whom? Why did this happen? What was your reaction to this?
Other than minor edits, no one made any changes to the statements prepared by the victims.
Do you know if a judge received your VIS? How do you know this?
All of the participants in this group were confident that the judge had received a copy of their statements. In some cases, the judge made explicit reference to having received a statement.
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 of the participants in this group were aware that the offender might receive a copy of their statement. Most believed that the offender had in fact received a copy but were not always certain that this was so.
Were you questioned by the defence lawyer on your VIS? What were your reactions to this?
In no case did the defence counsel address the victim in court on the contents of their statement.
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?
Not all participants were aware that they might be questioned by defence counsel on the content of their statements might happen. None of the participants thought that they would have declined to submit a statement had they expected to be questioned by the defence lawyer in court about it. Some, in fact, would have welcomed an opportunity to discuss the statement directly with defence counsel in court.
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?
The participants were aware of the possibility of oral presentation of victim impact statements. While they recognized that oral presentation of a statement might be stressful, the general view was that compared to the crime itself or the need to give testimony on it, oral presentation of the victim impact statement was seen as relatively easy to do.
One participant who had wanted to be present to orally give his statement at sentencing found that an unexpected guilty plea was entered which meant that he was not able to orally present his statement. He only found out after the fact that the guilty plea had been entered and that his statement had been used (as far as he knew).
Several of the participants in this group did, in fact, present their statements orally, meaning that they knew that the judge heard their statement.
Did the judge refer to your VIS in sentenc ing?
Only one participant could recall any specific reference by the judge to individual elements in her statement.
Would you go through the process of completing a VIS again knowing what you know now?
All of the participants in this group reported that given the need, they would submit another victim impact statement in the future. This was true both for those participants who perceived an impact of their statements on the sentence imposed and those who did not.
Did you get anything positive out of the experience?
Among the benefits of completing a victim impact statement were the following:
- the availability of the content of the statement for future trials of the same accused in case another victim comes forward;
- the opportunity to orally present a statement, preferably in front of the other people involved in the trial including people from the victim’s community;
- the opportunity to present the statement orally, including to the accused; and,
- for some participants, the sentence given by the judge reflected the information provided in the statement.
The challenge of covering the information in the statement that you wanted within reasonable limits on statement length.
Concerns about limitations on what could be included in the statement, including responses to what occurred during the trial.
The restrictions on how the categories on the form were worded and how they had to be answered.
One participant was frustrated at being unable to read his statement as he wished because of the unexpected guilty plea entered.
The participants expressed considerable praise for the assistance provided by the victim service workers in their cases.
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