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Quebec parties meet to discuss ways to better support sexual assault victims

Members of Quebec’s three main opposition parties met with the justice minister recently to discuss how to reform the way Quebec adjudicates sexual assault cases.

The meeting came amid debate about the merits of creating a special tribunal in Quebec to handle sexual assault cases. Premier Francois Legault has said he is open to the idea.

Veronique Hivon of the Parti Quebecois, who has been pushing for a special tribunal, said the fact so few women come forward to report sexual assault clearly demonstrates the justice system needs reform.

“The confidence of sexual assault victims is not there,” Hivon said in an interview at the Montreal courthouse, where she met with Justice Minister Sonia LeBel of the governing Coalition Avenir Quebec, Helene David of the Liberals and Christine Labrie of Quebec Solidaire.

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto civil sexual abuse lawyer Anna Matas says a special tribunal may not be the best solution but it’s still better than the current system.

Matas, a lawyer based in the Toronto office of Lerners LLP, says she would rather see all judges, “in all levels of court in every province, have adequate training with respect to sexual assault, including the impact of trauma on survivors’ memories and post-assault behaviour, and the insidious nature of the pervasive myths relating to sexual assault and consent to sexual activity.”

Federal Justice Department data shows that in 2014, only five per cent of sexual assaults in Canada were reported. That figure increased after the #MeToo movement encouraged more women to come forward across the country. Statistics Canada noted that reports of sexual assault spiked across the country in 2017, and Quebec recorded the largest increase — 61 per cent.

“Some people think we are trying to change the burden of proof and take away the rights of the accused,” Hivon said. “That’s not it at all. Those rights are guaranteed in the Constitution.”

If there is to be a separate tribunal, Matas says “it’s critical to educate the public on the fact that the proposed system would not change the law applied by the adjudicators and that the burden of proof required for a criminal conviction at a special tribunal would be the same high standard currently applied in criminal cases — meaning the accused will not be convicted unless the judge is convinced of his or her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Hivon said a special tribunal could require Crown prosecutors, judges, and court staff to be trained in the nuances of sexual assault cases. Access to psychologists and other support staff would be standardized across all regions in the province. The idea, Hivon said, is for the victim to play a larger role in these cases, as opposed to being an “object” used to convict the accused.

No such tribunals exist in Canada, but Hivon pointed to the special sex assault courts that have been set up in South Africa and a sexual assault pilot court project in New Zealand as models.

McGill University law professor Angela Campbell said a special tribunal — similar to what exists for domestic violence cases in other parts of the country — would be one way to improve the system. She said in an interview that rates of sexual crimes against women are high, but the crimes often go unreported and unpunished.

A tribunal can be created at the provincial level, Campbell said, because the goal isn’t to change the Criminal Code — which is federal jurisdiction — but to reform the way the laws are applied in Quebec.

“You want judges who understand criminal law, but who also understand that a victim isn’t necessarily lying because it took them 10 years to come forward,” Campbell said.

In criminal cases, she explained, the Crown prosecutor takes over, and the alleged victim often becomes nothing but a witness. A special court could ensure that elements of restorative justice are included in the sentencing, and that trained court employees keep complainants abreast of proceedings from beginning to end.

“The value is having a specialized set of staff and judges responsible for these cases who have the training needed to ensure the righteous application of criminal justice, but also a very nuanced and deep understanding of sexual assault as a social phenomenon,” said Campbell.

Matas says keeping complainants informed about the criminal proceedings — and finding other ways to involve them in the process — would be “a big improvement” over the current system.

“Many survivors of sexual assault report frustration with the criminal cases against their abuser,” she says. “In civil proceedings, where survivors are parties to the action, they have a deeper involvement and some measure of control over the process.

“Criminal proceedings are very different. Survivors often feel unheard, which may compound their feelings of victimization. Engaging them to a greater degree may help restore a feeling of control that is often lost after an assault.”

On the proposed education for members of the special tribunal, Matas says, “Training on trauma-informed analysis would be helpful to all members of the court system, not only with respect to sexual assault cases but for all crimes of violence.”

Nothing concrete was decided at the meeting, but all four participants said it was an important first step towards changing the way sex crimes are treated in Quebec.

LeBel said in a statement the next steps will be to “formalize discussion”’ with experts, representatives from victim groups, community organizations and others “who will study the best measures to put in place in order to better protect and support victims.”

This article originally appeared on AdvocateDaily.com

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