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Prof praises legal advice pilot for sex assault victims

|Written By Yamri Taddese

A pilot program to give victims of sexual violence free legal advice is the most promising part of the Ontario government’s new plan to stop sexual violence from the justice system’s perspective, according to a Dalhousie University law professor.

‘What we’re staring at is a profound systemic failing,’ says David Butt.

“I think that’s huge and it has huge potential to respond to what continues to be this problem of sexual assault complainants experiencing the criminal justice process as traumatic,” says Elaine Craig, an assistant professor at Dalhousie whose work focuses on the experience of victims of sexual assault in the justice system.

“It’s something I’ve personally urged in the past.”

Craig says she’d like the pilot project to go even one step further to provide for fully funded legal representation for victims of sexual assault.

Toronto criminal defence lawyer David Butt provides legal assistance to victims of sexual assault. He, too, says it’s crucial that victims have legal representation in court whenever the process engages their constitutional rights.

“I have the deepest respect for Crown attorneys, but they don’t act for complainants and they will be the first ones to tell you that,” says Butt.

“So you have a justice system where the defence, a vigorous advocate, is totally dedicated to the defence interest. The community has a vigorous advocate totally dedicated to the community’s interest. Who acts for the victim? Nobody.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s action plan, dubbed It’s Never Okay, also includes a proposal that would see Crown counsel and police receive mentorship and training on how to deal with cases of sexual violence.

The plan also includes amending the Limitations Act to remove deadlines for pursuing civil sexual assault claims. In addition, the scheme would see an amendment to rental-housing legislation to allow victims of sexual assault to break their lease if they’re fleeing violence.

Wynne also plans to update Ontario’s health and physical education curriculum in a bid to foster a deeper understanding of healthy relationships and consent.

Craig says the plan is an example of an “innovative” way of addressing issues through a multipronged, systemic approach and not just stiffer penalties.

“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,” says Craig.

“It stands in stark contrast to the federal government’s law-and-order, narrow-minded approach to what is a complex social problem,” she adds.

While it’s encouraging to see the government taking action, Butt says the changes announced earlier this month are just a start.

“All together, I’d call these baby steps. We’re looking at a profound structural failure,” says Butt, who points to statistics in the province’s report on the issue that say that for every 1,000 sexual assault incidents in Canada, 33 are reported to police, 12 result in charges, six are prosecuted, and just three lead to a conviction.

“If any private business had a customer satisfaction rate of 0.3 per cent, which is what that is, they’d be bankrupt in a heartbeat,” says Butt.

“What we’re staring at is a profound systemic failing.”

In addition to full legal representation for victims of sexual assault, Butt says he’d like to see a range of options for those seeking justice, including restorative justice alternatives.

“Anyone who is familiar with the complicated aftermath of sexual victimization will recognize that the responses to that are as diverse and varied as the women who are victimized. Some want a full-blown prosecution, some want alternative measures, some want to sue civilly,” says Butt.

“Right now, we’ve kind of fit it all with a one-size-fits-all model of prosecute, prosecute, prosecute,” he adds.

“I’m not saying that’s not the best solution in many cases. It probably is, but how about giving Crown attorneys, for example, a civil option? Or how about a healing circle?”

But there’s some disagreement on whether this is a good area for restorative justice alternatives like healing circles.

“I’d not suggest those types of restorative justice processes at this point not because I’m necessarily adverse to restorative justice but because I don’t think we’re ready for that in this context,” says Craig.

“There were attempts in Nova Scotia in the past to use those processes in the context of sexual violence and they were not well received,” she adds. “In fact, there’s a moratorium on them in this province.”

Craig says she was happy to see in the government’s report that the province is working with the Law Society of Upper Canada to make sure lawyers uphold their professional responsibilities and Canada’s rape-shield laws that limit the use of a sexual assault survivor’s history as evidence in criminal cases.

That’s an area that gets no attention, according to Craig. “We don’t have any examples, I think, of lawyers being disciplined by regulators for, say, invoking sexist stereotypes about sexual assault complainants,” she says.

“The law society doesn’t respond to that and, unfortunately, trial judges often don’t. They’re worried about entering the fray; they’re worried about being overturned on appeal for creating an apprehension of bias.”

While defence counsel should strictly uphold rape-shield laws, Butt says efforts to further boost the role of criminal lawyers in improving victims’ experience in the justice system should consider the dangerous potential of hindering a vigorous defence.

“It only takes one or two wrongful convictions for people to lose a whole lot of confidence in the system as a whole, so we have to be very careful when we look at that side of the ledger,” he says.

“As long as you recognize that as No. 1, yes, you can take a very careful look at how these cases are being defended and if the way they’re defended is part of the problem.”

  • bangla choti
    Questions about what constitutes 'normal' sex square measure a number of the most common inquiries that I receive. I do not assume that individuals really wish to be 'average' however they are doing wish to feel that their sexual tastes and selections aren't too way out of the normal. So, what will a 'normal' person get on my feet to in bed and, a lot of significantly, United Nations agency needs to be traditional anyway?
  • Lynne Gibbons
    Ottawa Mens Centre is blatantly gender bashing and is certainly so wrong, statics prove otherwise. Women have been suffering at the hands of their male partners for centuries, it has not changed much! For the one man assaulted there are 3000 women! This center should be working together to get laws changed not bashing the women who are protecting themselves and suffering the most!
  • Ottawa Mens Centre
    Thanks David,
    The Premier's program diverts attention from the fact that in Ontario, most domestic assaults are in fact committed by women. Female sex assaults can be brutally violent. A common tactic is a kick to the testicles that if reported to the Police will generally result in the victim being charged.

    The private prosecution system does not work because Ontario selects the most unsuitable to be justices of the peace who generally make political decisions followed by an equally repugnant group of Crown Attorney's who "stay" any and all charges that might contradict the government's ideas of gender and law.

    Ottawa Mens Centre
  • Ottawa Mens Centre
    Across Ontario our Crown Attorney's generally stay charges against the most violent of female perpetrators even in the face of unusual amounts of incontrovertible evidence while prosecuting cases against male victims of domestic violence that should not have any probability of a conviction.

    They gain these convictions by Ontario's Gender Superiority Program that swamps out Criminal and Family courts with endless fascist prosecutions that serve only those who are employed by those entrusted to serve and protect society but do the exact opposite.

    Ottawa Mens Centre
  • David Cote
    Leaving aside the ideological hyperbole, I agree with the Mens centres general understanding of what happens in the gender war.
  • Ottawa Mens Centre
    The Ontario Government has as about as much respect for legal rights as the 3rd Reich.

    Ontario operates a blatant "Gender Superiority Program" that encourages police to arrest male victims of domestic violence.

    On any day its not uncommon for the police cell blocks to have a line of generally full time fathers all suffering injuries that the police refuse to photograph, and while he spends nearly 24 hours in the cells waiting to be interviewed, the Female perpetrator is released without charges by a detective who fabricates evidence to justify NOT charging a female.

    That's when Ontario's billion Dollar Criminal Cartel of Children's Aids Societies step in to further fabricate evidence to justify removing children from male victims of domestic violence and placing them with violent mothers.

    Ontario spends billions promoting Murder, violence and child abuse as part of its Gender Superiority Program.

    Ottawa Mens Centre

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