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

CHARLOTTETOWN (SEPTEMBER 19, 2000)

Background

This focus group conducted for the Department of Justice Canada took place on Tuesday September 19 in the downtown Charlottetown focus group facilities of Prism Research. Eleven names of potential participants were provided to us by victim service programs in the area. Of these eleven individuals, eight 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)?

The typical point of initial contact for the preparation of the statements was through the provincial victim services program. In some cases, contact with the victim assistance program was preceded by a referral from the police or the Crown prosecutor. One participant was referred from a local battered woman’s shelter. In all cases, charges had been laid prior to the statement being completed.

Typically, the participants were encouraged to take their time in preparing their statement so that it could be as complete as possible. The participants recognized that immediately after the crime, they may not be aware of all of the impacts of the crime on them. They may also not be sufficiently composed to prepare a complete and thorough statement. They agreed that the full impact on them of their crimes only became clear to them after some time had passed. No one mentioned feeling rushed to prepare their statements.

No mention was made by the participants at this point of the issue of delaying preparation of the statements so that it could not be used by the defence during the trial.

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 typically reported that they were at least gently encouraged to complete a victim impact statement. At the same time, they did not feel pressured to do so. The choice was left up to them.

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

Most participants saw the purpose of the statement as providing them with an opportunity to tell the judge how the crime affected them. The thinking here is that if the judge fully understands the impacts of the crime on the victims, then the seriousness of the crime will be reflected in the sentence given. The ‘venting’ function of victim impact statements was also valuable for some participants.

An additional effect of the statements reported by some participants was the opportunity it provided them to, in effect, tell the offender in their own words how the crime had affected them.

In contrast to this, another participant reported having no interest in the accused learning any more about how the crime had affected her. This particular individual did not complete the section of the statement which refers to psychological or emotional impacts of the crime.  In this case, the accused was a relative stranger to the victim, meaning that she had no interest in the accused learning any more about her than he already knew. She recognized however that this view might be different for those who had an ongoing relationship with the accused.

Another participant reported that the statement provided her with an opportunity to frankly tell the accused (her ex-spouse) how the crime had affected her without any fear of retaliation or other response directed at her or her children.

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 almost all cases, the participants found out about what was involved in preparing a victim impact statement personally from the victim services worker. Typically they wrote them out long hand and reviewed them with the victim assistance worker who then had them typed up for submission. Most had made use of a printed list of the topics which the statements are to cover. They were not however restricted to this form to provide their statements. Rather, they could expand on the listed topics as they wished, and append other relevant documents.

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?

No problems were reported. All participants received any assistance they needed from the victim services program.

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

Among the restrictions referred to by the participants were prohibitions on including information about events, which occurred prior to the specific crime for which the trial was being held. Of particular concern here were prior incidents of abuse which they saw as relevant but could not be included. Not all participants reported being subject to these restrictions, however.

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

Several of the participants reported that they were permitted to include in their statements specific suggestions for conditions of sentence, for example psychiatric assessment, abstinence and participation in addiction programs.

One participant reported that she was not permitted to include discussion of the impacts of the crime upon her young children in her statement. Other participants reported the opposite experience. The previous participant saw the restriction of her statements to only those impacts which directly affected her as a significant gap in her statement.

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

Some participants reported feeling concerned that their statements might provoke an angry reaction from the accused. This could include some kind of retaliation once any prison sentence had been served, e.g., seeking access to their children. Some questioned whether completing a VIS would have any incremental effect beyond that resulting from testifying during the trial.

Another view was that victims of family violence live in fear of their spouses anyway, so that the contents of the statements were unlikely to make any difference to this situation. Others had no concern about the potential response of their accused. Rather they saw the statement as an opportunity for them to express their own anger.

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

The general understanding was that the statement was kept by victim services until the guilty verdict and was then provided to the judge. There was, however, some confusion among the participants as to the exact point of time at which the statement became available to defence counsel. The general view was that defence counsel receives a copy of the statement at the same time as the judge, i.e., just prior to sentencing.

Some participants recognized the importance of having the statement prepared ahead of time in case an abrupt guilty plea is entered. One participant believed that the Crown prosecutor plays a role in ensuring that the statement is provided to the judge. Another participant reported that her statement had been distributed before the conclusion of the trial. The participants had no idea as to what would happen to their statements in the event that the accused is found not guilty.

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

Nothing more than editing was done to the statements once they had been submitted.

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

Some participants saw the judge read their statements in court. Others were told by the victim assistance workers who attended court on their behalf, that it had been read aloud in some cases. In one case, the statement was read aloud by the judge to the courtroom.

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 decide d to complete a VIS?

With one exception, the participants were aware ahead of time that defence counsel would have access to their statements once they were submitted. They further assumed that the accused would also have this access. While they acknowledged that they knew the accused would have access to their statement, they did not necessarily think that this makes sense.

Almost all of the participants reported that their knowledge that the accused would have access to the statement would not in any way prevent them in the future from completing a statement.

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

None of the participants reported that they were directly addressed by defence counsel in the courtroom on their statement following the conclusion of the trial. However, in one case where the accused represented himself in court, he was the one who was questioning the victim on the contents of her statement as a witness.

One participant described a somewhat confusing situation in which the defence counsel spoke to her about her statement (perhaps this was the statement of the crime rather than the victim impact statement) in the Crown’s office prior to the trial.

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 were generally aware that they might be questioned on their statements.

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?

Some of the participants reported being aware that oral presentation of their statements was a possibility. None took advantage of this offer. In some cases this was because they were not present in the courtroom when the verdict was handed down and the sentence given. In other cases, they would not have been able to do this given the emotional impact of the statement. Those who had served as witnesses in their trials did not want to repeat that experience with their statements.

In principle, they supported oral presentation of their statements as an option for victims.

Did the judge refer to your VIS in sentencing?

Most of the participants were not present in court during sentencing, and were therefore not able to address this question. Of those who were, most did not recognize any specific reference to their statement in the judge’s comments prior to sentencing. An exception to this was the inclusion of requests for specific conditions of sentence made in the statements and included in the sentences.

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

Most participants expressed some dissatisfaction with the affect of the statement on the sentence itself, but would nonetheless still prepare another statement in the future given the circumstances. The general view was that while the sentences given were not harsh enough, they were still more severe than they would have been without their statements.

Did you get anything positive out of the experience?

Among the benefits of completing victim impact statements identified by the participants were the following:

The perception that the victim was able to gain some control over the situation. This was in contrast to the crime itself where the accused had been in control.

Preparation of a statement had prompted one participant to think more completely about how the crime had affected her and to recognize the effect of the crime in other aspects of her life. She saw this as better than simply trying to get over the crime without recognizing its impact.

Other Comments

One participant reported that she would have liked to have had her statement read to the accused even if a judge found the accused not guilty. The goal here would be to communicate to the accused how his behaviour had affected her.

One participant reported that the process of preparing a statement forced her to review and re­experience many of the most negative aspects of her victimization. She then wondered why she had bothered to do this when, in her view, the judge gave no weight to her statement.

A mother should be allowed to refer in her statement to the impact of the crime on her children.

If an accused person were given access to the statement before entering a plea, some might be more likely to enter a guilty plea because of the contents of the statement.

Some participants see a potential therapeutic value for the accused in communicating the impact of the crime to them via the statement. Others recognized that not all accused are likely to be susceptible to this kind of impact.