Complex victims’ rights bill puts advocates at odds

Steve Mertl
Leave me in peace!
It is an issue that is increasingly coming under the spotlight: what to do about stalking, harassment and similar forms of violence. For the victims it is a tough battle dealing with the psychological trauma, but also seeking legal protection. It can be a problem with a stranger, but often it is an ex partner. And while men can be victims, the majority are female. Getting a restraining order to keep someone away from us is sometimes the only solution. Achieving peace is not guaranteed, however, and campaigners are calling for better standards across Europe. Euronews visited Utrecht in The Netherlands, just one of a handful of states that offer protection in both criminal matters and private lawsuits. But despite also having anti-stalking legislation, we met a woman turned away by the police when she complained about her former husband. A constant flow of unwanted contact and legal proceedings over many years left her broken, both emotionally and financially. “I think for many people it’s very unclear what the effect of stalking is,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “It reaches the point where you don’t have a life anymore, everything is linked back to the stalking. You don’t know what will happen from one day to the next, you don’t sleep anymore. And the children suffer a lot because of this. They all have sleeping disorders, and they’re traumatised by everything that happens.” Launching a private lawsuit to get a restraining order is costly and difficult to prove, and in cases of physical violence they can never guarantee safety. Support and advice is crucial. Right On spoke to psychologist Huub Beijers, the manager of the “Steunpunt GGZ” peer support centre in Utrecht. “One of the things that happens to victims is that they get isolated, they start doubting their own sanity sometimes, or their own position, if they’re right or not,” he said. “They feel isolated, and a support centre can help them get together and talk to each other and help each other, but also recognise in each other’s situation what’s happening and share their experiences.” During Euronews’ visit to the centre, research was presented on the effects of stalking on children. Victims who want to remain anonymous were among those present. Campaigners across Europe are pushing all governments to bring in tough laws on stalking and measures for those needing protection from threats of violence. But they also want assurances that court orders are more vigorously enforced. On a European level, some progress has been made. A new agreement means that protection orders issued in one European Union country will be automatically recognised in all EU states, with no extra formalities. Authorities across the bloc will have to enforce criminal and civil court judgements in favour of victims. This will also put pressure on those EU countries where legislation in this area does not exist or is not fully developed. Right On spoke to an Amsterdam lawyer specialised in stalking cases, Cees Nierop, who has written a book on the issue. He welcomed the European move, and gave the example of a Dutch victim forced to flee to Belgium. “What you have to do at the moment in this case is first go to a Belgian judge to get the no-contact ban recognised,” he explained. “But now, when this new practice is working, that won’t be necessary anymore. In Belgium you’ll be able to work with the no-contact ban directly, and you’ll be able to get your freedom back and keep the stalker out of your life.” Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “The new European rules have already been approved by the European Parliament. Once they’re rubber-stamped by the Council of Ministers, EU states will have until January 2015 to bring them into force.” Ensuring there is access to specialist support services is also a key part of recent European regulations that set out minimum victims’ rights. At the same time survivors stress the importance of speaking out on the issue, to help others in difficult situations. “I think the first step in this is to understand yourself, that you are being stalked, that it’s a problem many people have and they don’t even recognise that what’s happening is stalking,” said the anonymous victim who spoke to Right On. “At the point they understand that it’s stalking, and that it’s not something to do with them but something to do with the perpetrator, I think that’s the moment you can start taking the first steps and start dealing with it.” And support organisations say having effective legal tools is crucial if victims are to have any chance of regaining control over their lives.

The Conservative government's push to embed victims rights deeply into the Canadian justice system is turning out to be more complex than expected.

CBC News reports the government has extended the consultation period for its victims bill of rights legislation by two months to allow for more comments.

The Department of Justice web site on the bill says the deadline for online public consultation expires Sept. 3.

The proposed legislation would greatly expand the participation of victims at all phases of a case and entrench their role in law, instead of leaving it a matter of policy.

Changes are welcomed by victims-rights advocates but just who would administer and pay for the new regime is at issue.

[ Related: Victims of crime need more support, says ombudsman ]

CBC News said Sue O'Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime, has tabled 30 recommendations, including measures to enforce restitution orders and legal support for victims as a case proceeds through the courts, and afterward when the criminal comes up for parole.

O'Sullivan is also recommending the government consider "nationally-consistent" supports and enforcement, given most victim services are administered by the provinces. Spokeswoman Christina McDonald told CBC News who covers the costs will depend on the final form of the bill and its implementation.

McDonald added that balancing the rights of offenders and victims is crucial to a healthy justice system. But O'Sullivan's predecessor, Steve Sullivan, worries the effect of the rights legislation will be limited and money needed to provide public services could end up going to lawyers' fees and administrative costs.

[ More Brew: Mother served with lawsuit two years after son killed in CN Rail crash ]

"It's not going to enhance public safety," Sullivan, now executive director of Ottawa Victims' Services, told CBC News.

"It could enhance the satisfaction of some victims in the system, which is a good thing, but I think when you weigh the potential costs of that versus what we could do with the same money in other areas which actually could enhance their lives and public safety, I think there are other things we could be doing like affordable housing and community services."

The other danger, he said, is that it could further degrade the already over-taxed justice system as applications under the victims bill of rights are tacked on to court proceedings.

"We're seeing frustrations with delays in the system now – it potentially could get worse," Sullivan told CBC News.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson gave no indication of when the final draft of the legislation would be tabled in Parliament.