Victims of violent crimes will get significantly less compensation after proposed changes in provincial government’s budget, including capping awards for pain and suffering to $5,000, advocates say.
The Criminal Injuries Compensation Board currently provides victims of violent crime with up to $25,000 to cover therapy, lost wages, medical bills, funeral expenses and intangible costs for pain and suffering.
According to the board’s 2017-18 annual report, pain and suffering accounted for almost $33 million of the compensation claims it paid out in year that saw 3,569 cases resolved at a hearing.
By comparison, if each of those cases had resulted in a maximum payment of $5,000, the board would have paid out less than $18 million.
Compensation for pain and suffering accounted for 95 per cent of the board’s payments in 2017-18.
In the provincial budget released last week, the Ford government proposed dissolving the board, which conducts hearings in person, electronically or, increasingly, in written form, and moving to an “administrative” model to improve efficiency.
The budget also proposed increasing the total available funding for one victim to $30,000. But by also limiting the maximum amount for pain and suffering to $5,000 — the category where the board had the most discretion to consider the impact of the crime — most victims will be denied access to the majority of the funding, said Deepa Mattoo, the legal director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which serves women who have been abused.
“The number of choices and options of what people can do when they experience violence is being taken away from Ontarians,” Mattoo said.
“They are whacking, at a minimum, $13 million out of the hands of victims, but the reality is it will be much more,” said lawyer David Shellnutt.
His client, a victim of human trafficking, was recently awarded the maximum amount of $25,000 entirely for pain and suffering — money that she has told him will be life-changing for her future, helping her go back to school and in supporting her two children.
Upon hearing about the proposed changes Shellnutt, who was seriously assaulted in January, rushed home and filed his own compensation application for himself and his partner. He does not know if those, or the claims he is currently working on for clients, will be affected by the $5,000 cap.
“This isn’t tailgating or drinking in the park, this is serious. It affects people’s lives,” he said. “Does a traumatized person who is unable to submit their application right now need to force themselves to do that to get it in by some timeline we don’t even know?”
Shalini Konanur, the executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, said most of her clients do not have receipts for therapy bills or medical bills to be reimbursed — the compensation they seek instead is for pain and suffering after violence that can span several years.
She recalled one client who left a relationship after 20 years of abuse. “She didn’t access medical services, she didn’t go to counselling, she doesn’t have receipts. She has the real, true pain and suffering of being a victim of horrific violence. That was where the amazing part of the scheme was. That they could take that into consideration,” she said.
“We only work with low-income clients so the impact of the awards are huge upon their lives,” she added.
The changes may also disproportionately affect women, who the board says file almost two-thirds of the applications.
The proposed changes seem to be about simply reducing the amount of money available for victims, Konanur said. And taken along with a number of other recent decisions by the provincial government — including a lower-than-hoped increase in funding for rape crisis centres, and cuts to legal aid for immigrants and refugees, social assistance and supportive housing — it feels like a “death by thousand cuts” for victims of crime, she said.
While the board works much faster than the criminal or the civil system, Konanur acknowledged that the average wait of 11 months for a hearing is still too long. However, she said a solution should be possible without scrapping the whole system and starting again.
The board also offers interim funding for therapy prior to issuing a decision, and that can be extremely helpful said lawyer Gillian Hnatiw, who often files compensation claims for victims of sexual violence.
For many victims, the board hearing and decision offered them a sense of justice and validation that they did not get from the criminal justice process, Hnatiw said. She noted that victims can make a claim without having made a police report, and that a criminal conviction of their attacker is not required.
Financial compensation for victims not only helps in immediate, practical ways and prevents increased costs in the future — it also sends a message that victims are valued members of society and that their recovery is important to the wider community, said sexual violence prevention educator Farrah Khan.
“With total lump sum payment awards per applicant of up to $30,000 (including up to $5,000 for pain and suffering), and periodic payment awards for a single occurrence of up to $365,000, Ontario provides the most generous compensation for victims of crime in Canada,” said Jesse Robichaud, a spokesperson for the Attorney General of Ontario.
The Criminal Injuries Compensation Board declined a request for an interview
Paul (Smiley) Evans, 48, was awarded the full $25,000 in compensation, in part for pain and suffering, after a 2012 shooting left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. That money helped him in supporting his children, he said.
Capping the amount for pain and suffering at $5,000 is “crazy,” he said, considering the many ways his life has been impacted in the years since the shooting, including the need for constant pain management.
“It can happen to anyone,” he said. “It’s going to be harder for (victims) now.”
Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati