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A new method of prosecuting domestic and sexual assault in Quebec, Canada

#method #prosecuting #domestic #sexual #assault #Quebec #Canada

Five years after the #MeToo movement sent shockwaves around the world with stories of unreported sexual harassment and assault, the Canadian province of Quebec is working to ensure victims are heard in court.

The largely French-speaking province is working to set up the world’s first specialized court to deal with sexual violence and domestic violence cases, which experts hope will help boost confidence that the legal system is not ignoring such incidents.

“Nowadays, women are afraid that they won’t be believed. They are afraid of the questions they will be asked and the harsh nature of the lawyers who will interrogate them,” says Julie Desrosiers, the co-chair of a committee of experts tasked with examining the matter.

“Women need to be reassured that they will not be hurt again during the trial,” said the law professor, adding that “the law must support changes in society.”

The US defamation case, which pitted actor Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard – who has made sordid abuse allegations from both sides – has highlighted the issue again as Heard faced rampant online harassment over her claims.

Many experts feared the verdict, which was largely in Depp’s favour, would serve to discourage women from making formal allegations against their partners.

In Quebec, the process of change began in 2018 when a small, bipartisan group of women politicians decided to address what they described as a systemic problem.

“After MeToo, I was wondering what we could do as elected officials, what specific actions we could take,” said Veronique Hivon, a provincial MP for the pro-independence Parti Quebecois.

The Expert Committee was set up: it interviewed dozens of victims of sexual violence about their experiences in court, but also judges, lawyers, police officers and social workers.

Its December 2020 report said trust needed to be rebuilt, and the group made some 190 recommendations on how to better handle complaints, including the creation of a specialized court.

A little less than a year later, the Quebec legislature voted unanimously to create the Judiciary Authority.

– “Powerful Message” –

The court is still in its early stages, but its founders have a far-reaching vision of what it could become: they hope it will employ more prosecutors to investigate sexual violence cases, more investigative resources, and training for police officers and judges to provide.

The organizers also hope to offer support to victims throughout the process, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the legal system is no longer an “steeplechase” for prosecutors.

“By setting up this specialized tribunal, we are sending a strong message, a collective message: these crimes no longer have a place in our society,” Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told AFP.

But that’s no easy feat considering that, like many other countries, sexual assault remains underreported in Quebec — it’s actually one of the underreported crimes in the province.

Only five percent of victims end up filing a formal complaint, even though there is no statute of limitations for such cases in Canada.

Of the few who have pursued their attackers, many say they regret it.

“I understand that it’s a good thing for society that I filed a lawsuit, that I went through with the process,” Juliette Brault, who was assaulted when she was 19, told AFP.

“However, despite the conviction of my attacker, I regret doing it. If I had to do it again, I would not have filed a complaint and I would not wish for anyone to experience what I experienced,” she said, calling her process a “very painful, violent” time.

– ‘I couldn’t breathe’ –

Brault — a former elite athlete who is now 24 and runs a daycare center — recalls initially thinking filing the complaint would be the hardest thing she would have to do.

“At the first police station I went to months after the attack, the officer wanted to take my complaint in the middle of the office, in front of everyone. I left and it was months before I found the strength to go to another station,” she recalled.

But then, when Brault was being questioned by her attacker’s attorney, “I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe,” she said.

Many victims say the trial is forcing them to painfully relive their trauma.

Lea Clermont-Dion, who was sexually assaulted when she was a minor and made a documentary about her experience called You Just Have to Report It, says she was “victimized again” by her attacker during three days of interrogation by lawyers .

“For too many years victims have been mistreated by the legal system,” says Clermont-Dion, now 31.

During the interrogation, she says: “At some point I really felt like the accused, the attacker. The guilt gets worse with these interrogations,” she adds.

For Clermont-Dion, training will be key to the success of the new court, which officials hope will be operational across the province within five years, including in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, about an hour’s drive south of Montréal.

She says everyone involved in the process must understand the concepts involved in sexual violence cases, including the idea that a victim could fall victim to the improper influence of a boss or other authority figure.

In fact, the training is already underway. For the first pilot project of the Special Court, ten courts were selected for a period of three years. The ultimate goal is to have a specialized court in every courthouse in the province.

In Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, the courthouse is being renovated to provide separate waiting rooms for victims of sexual assault to meet with psychologists and social workers.

Separate entrances are being built so they don’t encounter their accusers in the hallways, and screens are being placed in courtrooms and conference call rooms so victims can testify without having to face their attackers.

– ‘Scourge’ –

For Elizabeth Pilote of the Center to Help Victims of Crimes, “Clearly, victims’ greatest fear is being in the same room as the accused.”

Having staff at the center helping victims from the moment they make their complaint could help “improve the response to victims’ questions at every step of the process,” says Pilote.

Salaberry-de-Valleyfield’s chief prosecutor, Pierre-Olivier Gagnon, who is coordinating implementation of the pilot, says to tackle the “scourge” of sexual violence and domestic abuse, the justice system “must adapt. “

Two countries have already tried to set up special tribunals for cases of sexual violence: New Zealand and South Africa. As far as domestic violence is concerned, these courts come in several forms and already exist in some Canadian provinces.

But Quebec is trying to merge the two sets of cases in one tribunal; Officials argue both stem from a patriarchal view of society – and women are the main victims.

Not everyone is involved in the experiment: Some in legal circles say creating a special court for each accused could violate the presumption of innocence and even affect the impartiality of the trial.

Jolin-Barrette counters that “the legal rules remain the same”.

“What we’re doing is simply making the trial process much more humane and restorative.”

For Elisabeth Corte, who co-chaired the panel of experts with Desrosiers and is a former chief justice in Quebec, “improving trust requires that we say and explain clearly what we are doing.”

To root out the dysfunctional nature of the old system, it’s time to “get people’s attention,” says Corte.

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#method #prosecuting #domestic #sexual #assault #Quebec #Canada

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