The Role of Crown Prosecutors in Child Advocacy Centres in Canada


In this section, Crown/CAC relationships as described by interviewees are outlined first. Next, the five broad themes that were extracted from interviewee responses are presented including, where applicable, responses to specific questions. Third, additional lessons learned from the Crown responses are identified. Finally, suggestions for future Crown/CAC relationships provided by interviewees are highlighted.

The role of Crown Prosecutors in CACs across Canada

All Crown described a degree of involvement in the CAC, but several variations were present.

  • With the exception of the Crown from Quebec, none of the interviewed Crown were officially members of the MDT. Eight Crown attended meetings held at the CAC on a regular basis (daily to monthly). Others never attended (n = 3) or attended on a case-by-case basis (n = 3).Footnote3
  • Most Crown were on site at the CAC on a schedule (n = 9) and/or met frequently at the CAC on a case-by-case basis (n = 11).
  • About half of interviewees used the CAC facilities for meetings with victims/witnesses (n = 5), and about half did not (n = 6).
  • Several Crown provided regular training to CAC affiliated professionals (n = 6), with an additional two Crown providing ad hoc training. Receptiveness to training and/or advice was rated by Crown as high (M = 8.5/10, range 7-10).
  • Most Crown either did not have a policy or guidelines regarding CAC relations or did not know if there was such a document. BC was the only province reported to have guidelines.Footnote4

Pre-charge screening

BC, Quebec, and New Brunswick are officially considered to be pre-charge screening provinces in which the Crown lay charges (in comparison to other provinces in which police lay charges). However, it became apparent early in the interviews that many Crown/CAC relationships informally engaged in pre-charge screening under particular circumstances, and in Manitoba, pre-charge screening is in the process of implementation. Indeed, eight of all Crown who were interviewed for this study reported providing guidance on investigation direction and/or charges to investigators.

Brick and mortar vs. virtual models

There are relatively few virtual models within Canada (SKY in BC and LYNX in the Yukon). Given that only one direct interview was conducted with a virtual CAC (LYNX) and the other (SKY) was captured in the written BC response, it was difficult to draw conclusions about the Crown/CAC relationships as a function of the model. Nonetheless, it was apparent that both of these virtual models were developed to serve areas across broad geographical regions. Despite the importance of being able to serve clients, these virtual models also saw significant benefits to adding a bricks and mortar facility in which services could be provided, when possible.

Variation in models

Given the relatively few CACs in each province, an inter-provincial comparison between models was not possible. However, when the Crown discussed the evolution of their particular model, implementation seemed to be largely influenced by the particular players involved during the inception of the CAC. That is, the model for the CAC seemed to evolve to suit the particular community and people doing the work, rather than by adhering to a prescribed formula. BC is the only jurisdiction where there are guidelines developed by the BC Prosecution Service Resource Counsel Group. The guidelines reference relevant policies such as Committee Involvement.Footnote5

Broad themes

All interviewees expressed strongly positive views of working with the CAC and the benefits they observed to children and children’s evidence. Level of satisfaction with the Crown/CAC relationship was rated as an average of 8.1/10 (range 7-10).Footnote6 The Crown enthusiastically supported CAC development and often expressed a desire for finding ways to increase their involvement in the CAC. In this section, interview responses have been categorized into five broad themes, including strengths and challenges.  

I. CACs provide needed support for children

Interviewees consistently focused on the importance of the support provided to children through the CAC, and their belief that the CAC processes made children more comfortable and reduced trauma. All Crown reported believing that supports for children were enhanced with the CAC and that the quality of evidence was improved.

“…for us the best benefit is that we have children who are less traumatized by the process of investigation and prosecution. And so they’re giving better evidence in court because they’re better supported through the whole process.”

There was also a generally expressed belief that the children’s courtroom experience was improved because of the CAC processes. This improvement was most often attributed to more specialized personnel working with the children, wrap-around services provided to the children and family, and court preparation programs.

“Not only their ability to testify appears to be better, but they also, how they feel when they’re done, I think is much more positive than it would be had they not gone through the programming at [CAC].”

The uniqueness of cases with child victims and witnesses was repeatedly noted by interviewees. The Crown often reported that the resources of the CAC allow them to focus on their own areas of expertise, as others are able to meet the needs of complainants and families that are outside the Crown’s own area of expertise.

One of the sources of support for children was the increased communication among MDT members. The enhanced communication and collaboration between the various agencies involved in investigations was discussed by the majority of Crowns as benefiting the quality of investigation, as well as the services provided to the children and families.

“We get to focus on what we should be doing, which is the evidence, looking at the case law and what a reasonable likelihood of conviction is. And we have other people to facilitate the well-being for the child and to give us the insight on how this child is doing so that we don’t cause further damage in the criminal process.”
“… the collaboration, just many minds put to a problem is so much better than individual, and just having different agencies that have different things to bring to the table instead of each of us operating separately. We can collaborate on what's going to make things better - in terms, of course, from our standpoint, the prosecution - but just the whole experience for the child witness or victim.”

II. Benefits of specialization

The advantages of MDT member specialization were repeatedly mentioned by the Crown in the interviews. Comments about the benefits of specialization were common for all MDT roles, but were raised most often in relation to investigative interviewers. Many Crown reported that the CAC resulted in better quality interviews conducted by interviewers with higher levels of specialization and training in child investigations. Further, Crown reported that the increased communication with the CAC resulted in overall better investigations that allowed for their input earlier on in the investigation.

“And I think that, you know, where they’ve [CAC] been involved, the file product has been better. The prosecution has gone smoother. Where we’ve had generalized people doing this kind of investigation, we, typically speaking, have seen some pretty horrific things happen, and some pretty poor management of witnesses, and interviewing techniques for witnesses.”

Descriptions of prior experiences with professionals with a lack of specialization seemed to drive much of the appreciation for trained investigators with experience and expertise. Many Crown noted the unique skill set needed to provide comfort while interviewing child victims and witnesses.

”… when you have a constable of 20 years old with six months’ experience trying to interview a child with multiple sexual assault, the results are both poor and predictable.”
“And so, you know, I’ve seen a lot of terrible, terrible things happen in interviews, and I’ve seen prosecutions that simply weren’t viable because people didn’t know what they were doing with respect to child forensic interviews.”

Relatedly, Crown often discussed enhancement of training opportunities provided through the CAC as an important advantage. Workshops, lunch-and-learns, and other professional development opportunities for cross-expertise exchange were all discussed. Several Crown pointed out that increased opportunities for both delivering and receiving such training was an advantage of the CAC’s existence. This collaboration on training opportunities was also seen as a way to strengthen professional relationships and collaborative opportunities between professionals.

III. The Crown’s roles and responsibilities are not well understood

One of the most prominent themes to emerge from the interviews was a sense that the role of Crown in the justice system was not well-understood. This theme permeated responses to most interview questions and was perhaps the most prominent concern of Crown.

Some of the Crown reported that requirements around information sharing could lead to the appearance of Crown disinterest in the case or the CAC. However, the lack of understanding of Crown disclosure obligations to information that is reliable and relevant to the case at hand led many of the Crown to avoid meetings in which such information could be discussed. Several Crown expressed a desire for CAC personnel to better understand disclosure obligations.

“With respect to disclosure, for example, and information sharing, once charges get laid and the case ends up coming to our office, we're constitutionally obliged to- we are required to share all of the fruits of the investigation with defense counsel.”

Both decisions not to prosecute in cases in which the likelihood of convictions is low and/or cases in which the prosecution is not deemed to be in the public interest and decisions to prosecute when victims are reluctant, were discussed as difficult to manage. Some Crown described feeling that the CAC perceived a lack of support from Crown in such circumstances. The lack of understanding of how Crown decisions are made can lead to a misunderstanding of Crown’s motivations and potential frustration with perceptions of either action or inaction by Crown.

“If we have a reasonable likelihood of conviction and there’s a public interest in proceeding, sometimes those considerations don’t dovetail with the victim’s interest. So, you know, oftentimes, we have victims who are very reluctant to proceed, but there’s a bigger public interest in proceeding with respect to the prosecution. So, we deal with reluctant victims all the time, and it’s our job to ensure that the evidence gets before the court.”
“ Often, as Crowns, we are required to make very difficult decisions about, for example, whether there is a reasonable prospect in the case and proceeding or not proceeding.”

To address some of these issues, BC produced a document for Crown/CAC relations that provides an overview of the role of Crown and emphasizes the need to maintain prosecutorial independence (“The Role of the BC Prosecution Service in Child Advocacy Centres and Child and Youth Advocacy Centres”).

“The role played by Crown Counsel in CACs/CYACs, must maintain not only actual, but perceived independence from other agencies and organizations in order to perform our role in a manner that best serves victims of crime and the public.”

Finally, it is important to note that although there was widespread discussion and awareness of the sensitivity of assuring Crown independence, there were substantive differences observed across Crown in the perception of the appropriate level of involvement at the investigation stage. Not all Crown felt that providing investigative input was within their role. One interviewee expressed a desire to see the file only once the investigation was complete, while others articulated a need for ensuring that they were not directive during the investigation, and still others lauded early consultation during the investigation.

IV. Concerns with personnel continuity

Crown often discussed benefits of open communication with the professionals supporting children through the CAC, as well as the importance of their unique specializations. Thus, it is not surprising that a consistent concern that arose was a lack of continuity in personnel. Several Crown expressed frustration that specialized MDT members, and police in particular, often transferred out of the CAC position either during the acquisition of expertise or just after. 

“Things that have happened in the past is that you have certain officers and they're just getting good at their job and then they get promoted to something else.”
“…now I have to work with some new people and make sure they understand what to do when they might get transferred in and not have the training and the training is only offered every once a year or once every two years and so you’ve just got to go with those things that you have no control over.”

 V. Facility dogs

Though there is little empirical research that has yet examined the use of support dogs for child victims and witnesses, anecdotal reports from Crowns were very positive. Indeed, more than half of interviewed Crown spontaneously singled out facility support dogs as innovations that provided substantive benefits for child victims and witnesses. Given that not all CACs have facility dogs, the frequency with which dogs were discussed was striking.

“ I can’t even begin to tell you what a difference having those dogs have been. Because our experience as Crowns has been that having a dog support a child when they testify, where the child is comfortable with the dog, has increased their ability to give full and truthful evidence in court.”