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N.L. proposal would allow anonymous reporting of sexual assaults

Sexual assault victims may soon be able to report attacks anonymously to police through third parties in Newfoundland and Labrador — part of a growing trend among provinces trying to find ways of protecting victims.

The province’s Committee on Violence Against Women and Girls is leading the development of a project that would allow a complainant to share and document their story without the pressure of filing an official police report.

A designated third party, like a women’s centre, would keep the victim’s information and provide local police with anonymous details of the assault, so law enforcement can take note of possible patterns and alleged offenders.

Police can approach a group if a problematic trend appears, so victims have the option to come forward knowing law enforcement is already interested in hearing their story.

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto civil sexual abuse lawyer Anna Matas says she has some concerns about the idea.

Matas, a lawyer based in the Toronto office of Lerners LLP, says there are just too many unanswered questions, including how initial disclosure will be treated.

“If the police investigate, is it considered a statement, and would it be disclosed to a defence lawyer for the accused? Would survivors be cross-examined on these initial statements? If so, can they access legal advice before making the statement?”

Matas notes that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador — in collaboration with the Public Legal Information Association of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre — has a program that offers free legal support to survivors of sexual violence.

“I recommend they make use of this program before reporting,” she says.

Matas also wonders whether someone who’s made a statement can then withdraw from the criminal process if it gets to that stage.

“While survivors often express the pressing need to share their stories,” says Matas, “I think individuals considering disclosing through such a process should have more information before doing so about what use could be made of the information, who could access it, and how it may impact a future criminal or civil legal case.”

Matas also wonders if the alleged offender would be notified about a complaint filed in this way.

“If so, that could create safety concerns,” she says.

Similar programs exist in Yukon, Manitoba and British Columbia — where the violent serial crimes of Donald Bakker, Robert Pickton, and the many unsolved murders along the Highway of Tears highlighted the need for vulnerable women to have alternative models of reporting assault.

There were approximately 636,000 self-reported incidents of sexual assault in 2014, or 22 incidents for every 1,000 Canadians age 15 and older — unchanged since 2004, despite a decline for all other crimes over the same period.

This article originally appeared on AdvocateDaily.com

Anna Matas

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