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


This report describes the conduct and findings of six focus groups with crime victims who have completed Victim Impact Statements. This research was conducted on behalf of the Department of Justice Canada, Policy Centre for Victim Issues, as part of an ongoing examination of how Victim Impact Statements are meeting their intended purposes and how they might be improved in the future.

Victim Impact Statements are written accounts prepared by crime victims detailing the impact that a crime had on their lives. These effects, or impacts, may be any or all of physical, financial, emotional, or psychological. The Criminal Code broadly defines who a victim is for the purposes of a victim impact statement (e.g., in cases of homicide). Completed statements are presented to the court following conviction, but prior to sentencing. In effect, they enable crime victims to say, in their own words, how their lives were affected by the convicted criminal’s acts.

In Canada, the federal Department of Justice began testing various models of Victim Impact Statements in the mid-1980s. This effort culminated in the proclamation in 1988 of legislation under which a Victim Impact Statement (VIS) could be considered by the court when determining sentence (under the current s.722 of the Criminal Code, the wording is “shall be considered”). In 1995, amendments were made to the Criminal Code which require the court to consider a victim impact statement where one has been submitted. The procedures related to the preparation and submission of these statements vary by province/territory.

In October 1998, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human s tabled their 14th Report, Victims’ s – A Voice Not A Veto. The Report followed from the Committee’s comprehensive review of the victim’s role in the criminal justice system which included Town Hall meetings, written and oral submissions and a national consultation. The Committee’s Report included seventeen recommendations designed to improve the experience of the victim in the criminal justice system. The recommendations calling for amendments to the Criminal Code included several focusing on victim impact statements:

Criminal Code amendments designed to enhance the safety, security and privacy of victims and to enhance their participation in the criminal justice system were introduced by the Minister of Justice in April 1999 and were proclaimed into force on December 1, 1999.

The amendments responded to the Recommendations of the Standing Committee. The victim impact statement provisions of the Criminal Code were amended to:

The Government’s Response to the Report of the Standing Committee, tabled in December 1998 outlines the federal strategy to address the concerns of victims of crime. In addition to the Criminal Code amendments, the federal strategy includes the establishment of the Policy Centre for Victim Issues to develop and coordinate federal victim related policy and legislation, to consult with victim advocates and service providers to ensure their perspective is considered in the development of policy and legislation, and to conduct research to determine the effectiveness of existing programs and legislation to address victim needs.

Against this backdrop, the Department of Justice is embarking on a program of research on issues related to victims’ experiences with the criminal justice system. The current requirement was for the conduct and reporting of six focus groups with victims who have had experience with the preparation of a Victim Impact Statement. The groups were conducted in two phases. The first three groups were held in Vancouver, Regina and Toronto in March of 2000. The second three groups were held in Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John’s in September of 2000. The aim of this exploratory research was to identify and understand victims’ issues and concerns with Victim Impact Statements. In the remainder of this introduction, we outline the approach followed to conduct these focus groups.

Preparing the moderator’s guide. In developing our proposal for this project, we conducted an Internet search for literature on Victim Impact Statements. This search identified a number of documents that were of assistance in drafting the moderator’s guide for the proposed groups. Based on these background materials, and consultations with officials in the Department of Justice working on victims’ issues, we prepared our draft moderator’s guide. Following a review of this draft by Justice officials and the receipt of comments from provincial officials in B.C., Ontario and Saskatchewan, final revisions were made to the guide. A copy of this document is appended to this report.

Recruiting participants. We relied on the assistance of Provincial Victim Services in the six sites to identify willing participants for the groups. As a result, the groups were attended only by individuals chosen by the programs, and should not be assumed to be generally representative of all victims who complete VISs. This process was followed in order to address concerns about the use of confidential agency records to recruit participants. Brief profiles of the participants in the six groups are as follows:

More detailed profiles of the participants are provided in the individual group reports appended to this document.

Conducting the groups. All of the groups except the one held in Regina were conducted by the same male moderator. All groups were audio-recorded. A Justice official viewed all six groups, along with representatives of the provincial governments and/or local victim service agencies. Some of the groups were also observed by a qualified counsellor in case one or more of the participants became upset during the discussion. (No intervention by a counsellor was required during a group.)

Reporting the findings. Individual reports were prepared to summarize the findings for each group. The six individual group reports are appended to the end of this document. The following section of this report provides an overview of the general findings from the six groups.