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:
- that victims be permitted to read their impact statement aloud, either personally or by other means;
- that victim impact statements be provided to the offender/accused and Crown only after a determination of guilt; and
- that before sentencing, the judge be required to inquire whether the victim has been given the opportunity to prepare and submit a victim impact statement.
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:
- provide that the court shall, on the request of a victim, permit the victim to read their victim impact statement or to present it in any other manner that the court considers appropriate;
- clarify the definition of “victim” for the purpose of preparing a victim impact statement;
- clarify that the Clerk of the Court is required to provide a copy of the victim impact statement to the Crown and accused as soon as practicable after a finding of guilt;
- require that after a finding of guilt and before sentencing, the court shall inquire whether the victim(s) have been advised of the opportunity to prepare a statement;
- permit the court to adjourn the sentencing proceedings to permit the victim to prepare a victim impact statement;
- provide for victim impact statements to be considered at disposition hearings for persons found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder; and clarify that information provided by the victim at s. 745.6 hearings (early review of parole eligibility) may be provided orally or in writing.
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:
- The Vancouver group was attended by five women and three men. All of the crimes of which these people were victims were violent and/or sexual in nature.
- The Regina group was attended by seven women. The participants were at different stages in the process of completing/submitting their Victim Impact Statements. Three had completed a statement but had not handed it in (for one reason or another). Four had completed and submitted a statement that had been considered by the court in sentencing.
- The Toronto group was attended by four women and one man (including one married couple). All had been victims of violent and/or sexual crimes, or the parents of victims of such crimes.
- The Charlottetown group was attended by eight women. Most had been victims of offences involving individuals with whom they had had an ongoing relationship.
- The St. John’s group was attended by four women and one man. Most had been victims of a violent crime.
- The Halifax group was attended by two women and three men. All had been victims of serious, violent crimes, including two who were family members of individuals who had been killed.
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.
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