OTTAWA – Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says it’s going to take several months to draft a victims’ bill of rights as the federal government consults crime victims.
His comments come as Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to meet the parents of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Nova Scotia girl who took her own life earlier this month following an alleged rape and online harassment.
Harper will also discuss the Parsons case with Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, whose government wants Criminal Code changes to make it illegal to circulate intimate images without consent.
The Conservative government has frequently used victims of crime to promote its tough sentencing agenda, although critics have said the heavy focus on offender punishment offers little practical help to assist the victimized.
But Nicholson has also moved to include new criminal offences for online crimes, including luring and conspiring to abuse a child, in an effort to prevent victimization.
“Over the years we’ve had gaps that have been identified to us in the Criminal Code,” Nicholson said Tuesday as he opened a consultation with crime victims.
The government announced in February that legislation to entrench victim rights in law would be introduced this year.
The idea is to clearly lay out what rights victims of crime have within the justice system — principally the right to timely information about their case and the ongoing handling of the offender.
The concept is not new; all the provinces have such bills of rights —Manitoba since 1986 — but their practical effect has been limited.
“Over the next number of months, I want to get as much input as possible,” Nicholson said when asked about a federal victims’ bill.
“There’s no point in us coming forward with a bill and then hearing later that we might have done something slightly different.”
Provincial rights bills for victims of crime have proved in the courts to be largely symbolic and an expert in the field said any federal bill will likely face the same issue of lack of enforceability.
Scotty Kennedy, a sociologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.Y., who specializes in victims’ issues, said the rights of the accused are enshrined in the Constitution while victims’ rights are legislated — and the Constitution trumps legislated rights.
He said without enforcement power for victims’ rights, they become largely “symbolic politics.”