Canada’s criminal justice system does little to help victims of crime despite the existence of a national victims’ bill of rights, says Jennifer Neville-Lake, whose three children were killed by a drunk driver.
She’s now pushing for Parliament to strengthen those rights.
It’s an “incredibly traumatic experience” to be a victim in the criminal justice system, Neville-Lake said in a recent interview with the Star. “You’re just carried along, you’re just there.”
All of Neville-Lake’s children, Daniel, 9, Harrison, 5, and Milagros (Milly), 2, along with her father, 65-year-old Gary Neville, were killed by drunk driver Marco Muzzo in 2015 in Vaughan, Ont. , a case that shocked the country.
“You do not have the time to rest,” Neville-Lake said. “In my case, I went to the police station, found out everything, and within 24 hours, the process had started and I was joining the process as it was going on. I was left having to catch up in every which way.
“You have the right to be there, you have the right to speak at the end,” she said of the subsequent criminal proceedings, “but the Crown attorney does not speak for you. You can not dictate anything. ”
Neville-Lake has become an advocate for stronger rights for victims, launching a petition that was tabled in the House of Commons last year calling for an immediate parliamentary review of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights – a review that was supposed to happen in 2020, five years after its passage, but which has yet to be completed.
She plans to bring that petition back once the House returns this week, just as the House justice committee is expected to decide on Tuesday whether a review of the bill will be among its topics of study. The committee began a study of the bill last June but it was cut short by the federal election.
Brought in by the Conservative government in 2015, the bill stipulates that victims have the right to information, protection, participation, and to ask a court for restitution. In a 2020 progress report, former federal ombudsman for victims of crime Heidi Illingworth concluded that the bill’s implementation was “sporadic and inconsistent” across the country.
Advocates have said the bill looks good on paper but lacks key rights, and that there are challenges around the enforceability of the rights. They also decry the fact that the mandated review of the bill is overdue, at a time when the ombudsman job has been left vacant by the government for almost four months.
“The bill needs to be essentially overhauled,” said Aline Vlasceanu, executive director of the Canadian Resource Center for Victims of Crime.
Muzzo also seriously injured Neville-Lake’s mother, Neriza Neville, and her grandmother, Josefina Frias. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and was granted full parole last year after having been on day parole for nearly a year.
Neville-Lake said she does not recall being told about the bill’s existence during the criminal proceedings.
She said she “often wondered what else we did not know about,” saying she learned of a federal income support program for parents of murdered children from someone at the crash site, and not from anyone official.
There’s a lack of awareness by victims that they have specific rights and a lack of training of justice personnel who should be reminding victims that the rights exist, Illingworth noted in her 2020 report.
“The act falls far short of delivering the real rights it promised,” Illingworth wrote of the bill.
Victims face challenges when trying to enforce their rights, she said, and recommended that they have the right to assistance in collecting money from an offender when a court has awarded them restitution.
She also recommended that victims have the right to seek a review of a Crown attorney’s decision not to prosecute a case, as well as to seek a judicial review of certain decisions made by federal bodies like the Parole Board and Correctional Service Canada.
Justice Minister David Lametti said in a statement that his office is ready to work with Parliament to complete the review of the bill of rights. “We are also committed to supporting victims directly,” he said.
He said the last federal budget proposed $ 85.3 million over five years to support victims of sexual and intimate partner violence, and said the government has also provided $ 28 million to provinces and organizations to increase awareness of victim issues and legislation.
What the bill needs are specific rights to assistance such as counseling, and the right to compensation, along with a government action plan for funding, said Jeff Bradley, a PhD candidate at Carleton University whose research includes penal abolition and violence prevention.
Various provinces also have their own victims bill of rights or declarations of principles, along with some forms of compensation. A clash over jurisdiction would almost certainly come up between provinces and the federal government, but Ottawa has to take the lead setting national standards and providing funding, said victimologist Jo-Anne Wemmers.
That would put Canada more in line with the non-binding UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, she said.
“As Canada was one of the countries pushing for the adoption of the declaration, one would expect it to be one of the better students in the class,” said Wemmers, a professor at the University of Montreal’s school of criminology. “If Canada does not take it seriously, why should the other countries?”
The declaration calls for states to “endeavor to provide financial compensation” to victims when they are unable to seek restitution from offenders or other sources.
“As victims, there’s a lot of costs that are incurred that are unexpected: funeral costs, medical costs, trauma costs, and it’s not clearly outlined to victims in terms of how you can access the support or funding to get that,” said Sherryl Fraser, whose 24-year-old daughter, Christina Voelzing, was killed in 2016 by a former high school boyfriend.
“There definitely needs to be more funding, but also more oversight.”
On top of fixing the enforceability issue, Neville-Lake said she would like to see some specific language in the bill around assistance for persons with disabilities trying to navigate the justice system, and victims auto-enrolled into the parole system (with the option to opt out) rather than making them register.
“Make it meaningful for us,” Neville-Lake said of the bill. “Because we did not do this. As a victim of crime, I’m not the one who turned me into a victim. I’m not the one who drove impaired that day. ”
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