Under the early criminal justice system in medieval England, the enforcement of criminal justice was the duty of each citizen. Private citizens were responsible for preserving the peace and bringing offenders to justice, and it was typically the victims who reported crimes, who conducted the prosecution and assumed the costs.
At that time, the offender was taken to court primarily to give the victim an opportunity to obtain compensation for any harm suffered, but the gesture was often in vain. The insolvability of some offenders made it impossible for them to compensate their victims, while others simply refused to pay. In fact, many offenders remained unpunished if the victim or the victim's family did not exact revenge.
The first interventions of the State in criminal prosecutions came in 12th-century England in response to a need to prevent crime and to maintain social peace by punishing criminals.
Progressively, the justice system evolved into what it is now, a matter between the State and the offender. In Canada today, as in most countries with British traditions, the State represented by a prosecutor assumes the responsibility for criminal prosecutions in the name of public interest.
In tracing the origins of victim assistance services in Québec, the contributions of the feminist movement must first be given credit because society's awareness of its responsibility to victims grew out of that movement.
The first actions to address the needs of victims were taken in the 1970s with the creation of shelters for battered women and centres offering assistance to victims of sexual assault.
In 1972, Québec enacted the Crime Victims Compensation Act to provide financial compensation to victims of crime and support for their recovery. Under the Act, victims may in some instances be entitled to physical and social rehabilitation measures or to participate in occupational rehabilitation programs. The Act also created a financial compensation plan for victims who suffer a loss of income.
Despite the development of an extensive assistance network subsidized by the then Ministère des Affaires sociales, victim support workers noticed that very few victims were benefiting from the services and that the network in Québec was providing shelter mainly to women fleeing conjugal violence and women who had been victims of sexual assault.
At that time, the necessary resources were simply not available to many victims groups including victims of a break-in, aggravated assault, robbery, harassment or homicide, child victims of sexual exploitation, male victims of sexual abuse, battered women who were not in shelters, and elderly victims of abuse.
To have those needs met, in the 1980s Quebec's victim advocacy and assistance organization, the Association québécoise Plaidoyer-Victimes, made representations to the then Minister of Justice, Herbert Marx, to have legislation passed in Québec that would clearly establish the rights of victims and facilitate the opening of assistance centres for all victims of crime and their immediate family.
In 1988, the National Assembly enacted the Act respecting assistance for victims of crime , which fully met the expectations of the Association québécoise Plaidoyer-Victimes. The Act also established the crime victims assistance office, or BAVAC (Bureau d'aide aux victimes d'actes criminels), at the Ministère de la Justice.
The Act made the BAVAC responsible for supporting the establishment and the continued operation of crime victims assistance centres throughout Québec and created the Fonds d'aide aux victimes d'actes criminels to ensure the necessary funding.
In a press conference held on June 21, 1988, just a few days after the passage of the Act respecting assistance for victims of crime, Herbert Marx announced the opening of the first CAVAC in Québec, on the premises of the Québec City YMCA. Sixteen other CAVACs have been opened since.
In December 2002, Québec enacted the Act to amend the Code of Penal Procedure which adds an amount of $10 to the total amount of the fine on every statement of offence issued for offences under Québec law. The legislation came into force on July 1, 2003. The sums collected will be used to enhance and broaden the range of services provided by the CAVACs and more effectively meet the needs of victims of crime and their immediate family and of witnesses.