Multi-Site Survey of Victims of Crime and Criminal Justice Professionals across Canada : Summary of Victim Services Providers and Victim Advocacy Group Respondents

3. Findings from Victim Services Providers and Victim Advocacy Group Respondents (continued)

3. Findings from Victim Services Providers and Victim Advocacy Group Respondents (continued)

3.10 Preparation for Court

Victim services providers who participated in interviews were asked to describe victims' experiences of testifying. They reported that the experience varies greatly and depends on several factors such as the type of offence, the individual victim, and the approach taken by Crown Attorneys and defence counsel. Overall, respondents said that testifying in court is a difficult, anxiety-producing, and often terrifying experience for victims. Cross-examination is particularly difficult, especially for child and other vulnerable witnesses; according to victim services providers, some victims feel as though they are the ones on trial. Furthermore, simply seeing the accused again can be extremely stressful for some victims, and many victims are reluctant to discuss their personal experiences in public for fear of being judged. A few victim services providers said that victims do not generally feel supported by the Crown Attorneys and police, which makes their experience testifying all the more difficult.

Nevertheless, several victim services providers said that while giving testimony in court is certainly an unpleasant experience for victims, overcoming the challenge of testifying can be empowering and can help victims to feel more secure. For some witnesses, recounting their story is a therapeutic exercise and makes them feel as though they have contributed to the system.

Adequate preparation prior to testifying is regarded as essential by victim services providers, since it helps to minimize victims' fears by demystifying the criminal justice system. Almost three-quarters of victim services providers surveyed reported that their organization helps victims prepare to testify in court. Some victim services providers at large sites reported providing group sessions on court preparation.

From the interviews, it was evident that the most common types of assistance included giving courtroom tours or showing victims drawings of the courtroom set-up, explaining the roles of the various actors in the system (judge, Crown Attorney, defence counsel, clerk), and explaining the court process and rules. Other types of assistance include provision of informational videos and written materials, role-playing, and use of age-appropriate materials such as games, books, and videos to prepare child witnesses. A few respondents indicated that they give victims guidelines on appropriate courtroom behaviour and tips to facilitate their time on the witness stand and make them feel more at ease. Although they acknowledged that it is not always possible, a few reported that they also attempt to introduce witnesses to Crown Attorneys beforehand; this helps make witnesses feel more comfortable.

Finally, a few victim services providers specifically noted that they do not discuss any facts or evidence related to the case, since some criminal justice professionals may perceive this as a form of coaching. In any case, they believe that the focus of court preparation should be on providing victims with information about the court system and helping witnesses prepare emotionally for testifying.

In interviews, victim services providers offered various suggestions for additional ways to help victims with testifying. One common suggestion was meetings with Crown Attorneys prior to testifying and follow-up or debriefing sessions with Crown Attorneys after testimony is completed. A few suggested that it would be helpful if just one Crown Attorney followed the whole case through; this would establish a rapport between the victim and the Crown Attorney and would contribute to making the victim feel more at ease while testifying. A few suggested modifying the courthouse and courtroom environment to further facilitate victims' participation in the court process. Separate waiting rooms for victims and witnesses, separate entrances to the courtroom, child-friendly courtrooms, and seating the accused out of view of the witness were among the ideas proposed.

A few victim services providers advocated increased use of testimonial aids. They believe that these protections are not used frequently enough, particularly in cases of domestic violence and cases involving children. Finally, a few victim services providers indicated that providing increased financial support to victims and witnesses who are required to testify would greatly facilitate their participation in the criminal justice system. According to these respondents, many victims absorb with great difficulty the costs associated with transportation, childcare, and unpaid work days.

3.11 Victim Impact Statements

Victim impact statements (VIS) are written statements in which victims can describe the effect of the crime on them and any harm or loss suffered as a result of the crime. The 1999 amendments to the Criminal Code allow victims to read their statements aloud during sentencing, require the judge to ask before sentencing whether the victim has been informed of the opportunity to complete a VIS, and permit the judge to adjourn the sentencing to give the victim time to prepare the statement.

Victims of crime can submit victim impact statements at sentencing and at parole. At parole, the victim can rely on the victim impact statement from sentencing and/or provide another statement to the parole board. These two victim impact statements (sentencing and parole hearings) have very different processes and purposes. The following discussion considers victim impact statements at sentencing and at parole separately.

Victim Impact Statements at Sentencing: Providing Information on Impact Statements

Related to the issue of whether victims submit victim impact statements is the provision of information to victims about the statements. If awareness is low, submission rates will be correspondingly low.

Victim services providers were asked if they thought that most victims were made aware of victim impact statements and, if not, what might be done to inform victims of their opportunity to give a statement. While about half (53%) of victim services providers surveyed believe that most victims are made aware of victim impact statements, one-fifth do not. The remaining respondents did not respond (26%).

Victim services providers made several suggestions for how to better inform victims. Most often they believe that victim services should take the primary role in providing information to victims (n=20). Suggestions included: mailing an information package or a fact sheet along with the victim impact statement to all victims (n=16); having all agencies and criminal justice professionals provide information at various stages of the process (n=12); and simply providing more communication and better follow-up with victims (n=13).

In interviews, several victim services providers stressed the importance of using a variety of methods for informing victims (e.g., personal letter, brochure, telephone call, in-person visit) and providing follow-up that includes explanations, assistance, and support. A few victim services providers believe that verbal communication facilitates understanding and is therefore the most effective means of informing victims.

When asked what would be the best time to inform victims about victim impact statements, victim services providers who were surveyed suggested many different points during the process, including as soon as possible after the offence (52%), after someone is arrested and charged (46%), and just before the trial is scheduled (26%). However, among victim services providers interviewed, depending on the nature of the offence, there was general agreement that victims may be too traumatized to absorb information if it is provided too soon after the crime. For this reason, they said that while the information should be provided as soon as possible, several reminders should be given throughout the victims' involvement with the criminal justice system.

Table 12 provides respondents' opinions on the best time to inform victims about victim impact statements for use at sentencing.

  Victim services (n=318)
As soon as possible after the crime 52%
After someone is arrested and charged 46%
Just before the trial is scheduled 26%
Reminders throughout the process 6%
After a finding of guilt 6%
When victim is ready 6%
Other 4%
Don't know 2%
No response 2%

Note: Respondents could provide more than one response; total sums to more than 100%.

Victim Impact Statements at Sentencing: Assistance in Preparation

Victim services providers were asked if they assist victims with victim impact statements and, if so, what types of assistance they provide. Over 90% of those surveyed said that they explain the kinds of information that can be included in victim impact statements and give general instructions on how to complete them. Over half of the victim services providers said that they assist in preparation of statements by helping victims formulate their thoughts. Around two-thirds help victims complete the statement by taking notes as the victim speaks about the crime or by reviewing the statement completed by the victim. In interviews, several victim services providers further explained that assisting victims with their statements is often done to address literacy or other special needs.

Several victim services providers who were interviewed reiterated that they give advice on what to include in the statement and also explain to victims how the impact of crime may be manifested. A few mentioned that victims often do not recognize the effects of the trauma they have experienced. Several victim services providers explained that although they assist victims with expressing their feelings, they try to keep the victim impact statement in the victim's own words. A few, however, indicated that they do not provide any suggestions of what to include, nor do they help victims formulate their thoughts; they will only write down word-for-word what the victim says so as to prevent influencing the statement. Table 13 presents the types of assistance victim services providers offer for victim impact statements.

  Victim services (n=184)
Explaining kinds of information that can be included in statements 92%
Explaining instructions on how to complete victim impact statements 91%
Providing forms for victim impact statements 82%
Informing victims where to send completed statements 80%
Informing where forms can be obtained 76%
Helping complete the statement (write down what victim says) 65%
Reviewing completed statements 63%
Helping draft statement (assist victim with formulating his or her thoughts) 56%
Collecting completed statements 51%
Submitting completed statements to Crown Attorneys 50%
Other 11%

Victim Impact Statements at Sentencing: Method of Submission

Many victim services providers surveyed are not directly involved in the submission of victim impact statements and could not respond to the survey question about the most common method of submission. However, 194 were able to respond and were generally in agreement with the other professions that answered.

Of the 666 respondents with sufficient experience to respond, close to 80% or more of Crown Attorneys, defence counsel, judges, and victim services providers agreed that victim impact statements are usually submitted in writing only. About one-fifth of survey respondents reported that Crown Attorneys read the statement. More victim services providers perceive that victims most commonly read their statement in court than do Crown Attorneys, judges, and defence counsel (18% compared to 5%, 7%, and 2%, respectively). Table 14 provides the survey results of those respondents who were able to answer this question.

  Victim Services (n=194) Crown Attorneys (n=184) Defence Counsel (n=180) Judiciary (n=108)
Written statement only 82% 90% 79% 87%
Victim reads statement 18% 5% 2% 7%
Crown Attorney reads statement 16% 21% 18% 16%
Other 2% 3% 4% --

Note: Respondents could provide more than one response; totals sum to more than 100%.

According to those interviewed, it is more common for the Crown Attorney or the judge to reference the victim impact statement than for the statement to be read in court. With only one exception, all Crown Attorneys said that victims rarely express a desire to read their statements in court; the victim reading his or her statement is apparently more common in very serious cases involving violence against the person. However, while few victims choose to read their statements, victim services providers commented that many of these victims believe that this is the only way for them to be heard.

Victim Impact Statements at Sentencing: Timing of Submission

While they were not asked directly about this issue in their interviews, several victim services providers also commented on a problem encountered by victims if they wait too long before submitting a victim impact statement. According to these interviewees, there are times when the conviction and sentencing happen too quickly for victims to submit a victim impact statement to the court. However, several Crown Attorneys noted in interviews that there is no point in receiving the statement early because it may not be necessary (e.g., in the event that there is a stay or an acquittal). A few Crown Attorneys made the point that submitting the statement after a finding of guilt helps to ensure that it will be relevant and up to date at the time of sentencing and will not need to be revised. In addition, taking more time allows for a more complete statement.