The Conservative government is moving ahead with a bill to double the fees criminals must pay into victim services funds and make them mandatory in all cases, even as victims' advocates raise questions about how effectively those funds are being spent.
Bill C-37 seeks to increase victim surcharges to $100 for a summary conviction and $200 for an indictable offence. In cases where a fine is imposed, the offender would instead have to pay a surcharge amounting to 30 per cent of the fine, up from 15 per cent.
Money raised from victim surcharges is used by the provinces and territories to fund government services, community organizations and, in some cases, criminal injuries compensation.
In addition to the higher fees, the bill would eliminate judges' ability to waive the surcharge in cases where it might impose undue hardship on an offender – a practice the bill's supporters say is widespread and occurs even when offenders are capable of paying.
Sharon Rosenfeldt, president of a national group called Victims of Violence, said she supports the legislation but wants provinces and territories to do a better job of reporting on what they do with the money.
"There is no transparency in how this money is being spent," she told a House of Commons committee. "I think the actual bill is a good step in the right direction …however, I believe there has to be more transparency from the provinces."
Irvin Waller, a victims rights expert at the University of Ottawa, said it would take a national survey of victims of crime to truly understand if victim-designated funds are being spent appropriately. But he added that there's little question that the provinces and territories would make use of additional funds for victim services. "The issue is, of course, what they use the money for," he said.
The victim surcharge was introduced in 1989 to help cover the cost of providing services to people affected by crime. But it never generated the revenue governments expected, largely because judges often waived the added fees offenders were supposed to pay.
A 2006 study of New Brunswick's victim services system revealed that the surcharge was waived in about two-thirds of the cases under review, and very few judges produced a written explanation for the waiver.
Susan O'Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime, told a justice committee this week that doubling the surcharges would give provinces and territories more money to help support victims of crime.
"These changes would ensure consistent application of the surcharge provisions across Canada and hold offenders more accountable to the victims whose lives are affected," Ms. O'Sullivan said.
Opposition MPs expressed concern over the blanket removal of judicial discretion on applying the victim surcharge, saying the legislation leaves open the possibility that an offender could be sent to jail simply because he or she cannot pay the surcharge.
The legislation would allow criminals to participate in a provincial fine-option program, which means they may be able to do community work to cover the amount they owe. But not all provinces offer the work option for fines.
NDP MP Francoise Boivin said she supports the bill but is concerned that it could result in some offenders serving jail time unnecessarily. She also wants to see the federal government follow up with the provinces and territories to push for more consistency in victim services.
"The minister has to sit down with all of his counterparts," Ms. Boivin said. "There has to be some type of constant from ocean to ocean to ocean. You cannot have a system in criminal justice that is different based on the fact of where you live."
The bill passed a clause-by-clause review this week and will return to the House of Commons for a final vote before it is sent to the Senate.