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

2. Summary of Findings (cont'd)

2. Summary of Findings (cont'd)

2.7 Privacy or Safety Concerns Related to Completing the Victim Impact Statements

Some participants in almost all groups expressed safety concerns arising from the Defence’s and the accused’s access to completed victim impact statements. The general nature of these concerns was that the accused’s friends and family might be provoked to commit some kind of vengeful act towards the victim as a result of the statement. Related to this was a concern that the perpetrators might seek vengeance against the victims for their statements, either during the trial (if they were not in custody) or after they had completed their prison sentences, if any. Some participants recognized that access to their statement by Defence could be delayed if the statement was not submitted until shortly before sentencing was to take place.

Overall, not a great deal of concern was expressed by participants 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. Another participant 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.

Finally, some participants noted that any privacy or (especially) safety-related impacts of completing a VIS would likely be modest in cases where the victim had already testified during the trial.

2.8 Knowledge of What Happens to Statements Once they are Completed

Participants in the groups in Vancouver, Regina and Toronto generally indicated that they were not aware specifically of what happened to their statements once they were completed. Participants in the three Atlantic groups generally indicated that they believed that once their statements had been submitted to victim services, they were retained by victim services until a guilty plea or verdict was entered, at which time the statements were provided to the judge.

With respect to participants’ understanding of what happens to statements once the trial is concluded, some indicated that they believed that their statements would remain in the court file and could be re-used in the event of a breach of probation or at a parole hearing. Other participants indicated concern regarding the possibility that the information in their statement would become publicly accessible, which might be embarrassing or otherwise damaging to them in the future.

2.9 Changes Made to Victim Impact Statements Following Submission

With rare exceptions, participants in all six focus groups reported that no changes of any substance were made to their statements by anyone else once the statements had been submitted. Where such changes had been made (at the insistence of Defence counsel), the participants reacted very negatively to this since, in their view, no one knows better than they do what the impacts of the crime have been on them and their families.

2.10 Knowledge of Whether the Judge Received their Statements

With the exception of those participants who presented their statements orally in court, participant knowledge was mixed as to whether or not the judges in their cases had received their statements. Some participants who were in court during sentencing said that they saw their statements being physically handed to the judge. From the information provided by the participants, it appears as though only in rare instances did judges make explicit reference to having received a statement; one judge read the statement aloud in court. Some participants were unclear as to whether or not judges are required to actually read the statements that they had prepared at all.

2.11 Access by the Accused to Completed Victim Impact Statements

Not all participants were aware that the Defence and the accused would have access to a copy of their Victim Impact Statements once they had been submitted. Nevertheless, most participants indicated that they believed it to be proper that the Defence and accused have access to this information. Of those who did not know before they submitted their statements that this access would be granted, most reported that they would not have been deterred from completing their statements had they known this ahead of time.

Participants had differing opinions regarding the general idea of the accused having access to their statements. On the one hand, some participants wanted the accused to understand the extent of the impact of the crime on them (“so they would know”). On the other hand, other participants did not want the accused to know how they had been hurt because they felt that the accused would take some satisfaction from this knowledge.

Overall, participants indicated significant concern with the practice of allowing Defence counsel to challenge and criticize the content of a victim’s statement in open court. Participants stated that in their view, no one knows better than they how the crime has affected them. At a minimum, participants suggested that they should have the opportunity in court to respond to any statements made by Defence counsel about the content of their VIS.

2.12 Being Questioned by Defence Counsel on the Contents of Victim Impact Statements

Very few participant s in the six groups reported that they had been directly questioned by Defence counsel on the content of their statements. In these rare cases, the participants more often than not felt that they had ‘given better than they got’ in these exchanges.

Participants did raise concerns regarding situations in which Defence counsel was seen to have belittled the impacts of a crime on a victim as described in the victim’s victim impact statement. Participants indicated that they would have welcomed an opportunity to reply to the comments made by the Defence, but were not given an opportunity to do so. Some participants were indignant at this treatment of their statements. They could see no basis for Defence counsel contradicting their accounts of how the crime had affected them.

2.13 Reading Statements Aloud

For the most part, participants in all six focus groups were aware of the possibility of reading their statements aloud. Among those not aware of this option, there was generally strong support for it in principle. In part, this support was based on the view that some judges may not read these statements very carefully. Participants indicated their belief that if victim impact statements are delivered orally by the victim, then this perceived problem may be reduced.

Approximately half of the participants in the Toronto, Regina and Vancouver groups, whose trial had concluded, read their Victim Impact Statements aloud in court. Only two participants in these groups reported that they had wanted to read their statement aloud but were not permitted to do so. Of the participants in the Atlantic groups, fewer than half had presented their statements orally.

Among the reasons cited for not giving an oral statement were the following:

One participant who had wanted to be present to deliver his statement orally at sentencing was prevented from doing so when an unexpected guilty plea was entered. He explained that he had 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).

The participants in all six groups strongly supported the view that all victims should be allowed to present their statements orally, if they so wished.

2.14 Reference to the VIS by the Judge

Explicit reference by the judge to Victim Impact Statements in sentencing was infrequently reported by participants in these groups. In the rare instances where this did happen, this acknowledgement by the judge of the contents of the statements was greatly appreciated by the victims. For many participants, preparing and presenting their statements was very stressful and emotionally-draining. Judicial recognition of this impact on victims was clearly appreciated. Participants indicated that they would encourage this practice. They suggested that judges clearly acknowledge the effort which victims put into their statements, as well as the contents of their statements.

Some victims described this judicial acknowledgement as a form of validating the experiences and impacts described by them in their Victim Impact Statements. They seemed to take some satisfaction from this, even if they did not believe that the VIS had made any real difference in terms of the sentence imposed.

2.15 General Reactions to the Experience

For the most part, the participants in the Vancouver, Regina and Atlantic groups reported that they would go through the process of completing a Victim Impact Statement again, knowing what they know now. They were generally positive in their assessment of victim impact statements, despite frequent doubt that these statements had had any significant effect on the sentences imposed. Many ascribed a therapeutic value to the experience of completing a victim impact statement. Among the other benefits ascribed to the process of completing and submitting a statement were the following:

In contrast, the participants in the Toronto group reported that they would not prepare a statement in the future, knowing what they do now about both the process and its effective­ness. For them, the only test of effectiveness of the statements is their impact on sentencing. They also greatly resented the rough treatment they perceived themselves as having experi­enced at the hands of Defence counsel in response to the contents of their statements.

One source of particular frustration was the perception that “plea-bargained” sentences are agreed to without any reference to the impact of the crime on the victims as expressed in their statements. Some participants found it particularly frustrating that the sentences in their cases had been negotiated between the Crown and the Defence even before their statements had been prepared. In these instances, not only were the victims dissatisfied with the sentence given, but they felt that the process had abused their time and fragile emotional state, knowing that their statements would be given no weight in sentencing.

2.16 Other Comments

One participant in the Vancouver group whose trial was held in Ontario saw merit in a standard format for Victim Impact Statements which would ease their transferability from one province to another.

Some participants indicated their disdain for the use of the term “victim” within Victim Impact Statements, suggesting that a more appropriate name for the statement would be a “Crime Impact Statement.” In part, this reflects their reluctance to think of themselves as victims. Others saw no shame in being referred to as victims. On a related point, participants in one group objected to the term “Victim Impact Statement” because, as they see it, the statement does not enable them to have an “impact” on sentencing or anything else to do with the trial. They did not recognize that the sense of the term as intended was that it would provide the opportunity to relay the impact of the crime on the victim.

Some participants were unclear as to whether or not their statement would be included in the official Court record and therefore accessible to anyone who wanted to read it. It was also unclear whether or not the Victim Impact Statement would be available to the Parole Board at the time of a parole hearing.

One participant noted that while the legislation pertaining to victim impact statements allows people to have a voice, everything else also has to be in place. The feeling was that if you are going to empower victims, then victims’ s should be of central consideration: “VIS are powerful, but only if the system enforces what they have created.” One respondent indicated that sometimes it is as if no one cares but Victim Services.

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, victims should be made to feel more comfortable and at ease as they give their statements. This participant 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.

Those who did go to court felt it was critical to have the support of Victim Services to provide assistance/guidance throughout the process and support on the day of sentencing. One participant noted that she would never have gone through the process had it not been for that type of support.