Editorial: Two worthy justice efforts

It’s nice to see two fairly enlightened efforts at improving the justice system — one on sexual violence and assault and the other on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder — coming from opposite sides of the
political spectrum.

In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced the government’s action plan to deal with sexual violence and assault. Given the renewed discussion on the issue, it’s a timely response to concerns that the justice system doesn’t do a good job of handling sexual assault cases. But rather than merely come out with punitive measures (something the province admittedly has a limited role in since the Criminal Code falls under federal jurisdiction), Wynne announced a host of measures ranging from a pilot project to provide independent legal advice to victims to education on issues such as healthy relationships and consent. It also seeks to expand victims’ ability to seek other remedies by eliminating the two-year limitation period for civil sexual assault claims.
In addition, the plan would provide for increased community supports.

To be sure, the plan also refers to training for prosecutors and an enhanced prosecution model tailored to sexual assault cases, something that seems fair given the concern over the low rates of reporting complaints and the low numbers of prosecutions and convictions. There’s an obvious concern about swinging the pendulum too far the other way, but what’s promising is the province’s effort to take a systemic approach that looks at the issue as a social problem. As Dalhousie University Prof. Elaine Craig told Law Times last week, “It reveals some understanding on the part of the government that this is a social problem that can’t be responded to simply by . . . stiffer sentences or mandatory minimums.”

At the federal level, the Canadian Bar Association came out in favour last week of a private member’s bill that would amend the Criminal Code to address fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Among other things, it would allow judges to order an assessment of someone they suspect suffers from the disorder and consider the condition as a mitigating factor on sentencing. Somewhat surprisingly, the bill is from a Conservative MP, Yukon’s Ryan Leef.
The CBA would still like additional changes to allow for discretion when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences in such situations, but the bill is a welcome response to an issue that has been on the justice system’s agenda for some time. And with the federal government increasingly embracing private members’ bills on justice matters, this one has at least a prospect of passing.
— Glenn Kauth

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