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NS criminal justice system in the spotlight, amid low rate of sexual assault cases going to charges

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Criminal justice system in the spotlight, amid low rate of sexual assault cases going to charges
WATCH ABOVE: Following a Global News investigation into how many sexual assault cases lead to charges in Halifax, people who work in the field say major changes are needed to how the criminal justice system works. Despite opposition calls for immediate action, the government is taking a more cautious approach. As Global's legislative reporter Marieke Walsh has the story – May 18, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second instalment of a two-part series on reported sexual assault cases in Halifax. The first part was published on May 17.

A specialized sexual assault court and paid legal advice for sexual assault victims are two ways people working in the system say the government can make it better.

Global News interviewed Sgt. Stephanie Carlisle, a supervisor on the Halifax Regional Police sexual assault unity, Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay, who authored the report on the Saint Mary’s University rape chant scandal, and Jackie Stevens, executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.

The three were responding to a Global News investigation that found that in Halifax, reported sexual assaults lead to charges 22 per cent of the time, compared to the national average of 44 per cent of reported incidents. Nova Scotia’s overall rate of reported sexual assault cases that lead to charges is also below the national average and sits at 36 per cent according to Statistics Canada numbers.

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“If we have a system that is more responsive and more empathetic to the situation of victims and is more aware of the complications of sexual assault maybe that will lead to more confidence, which will lead to more complainants wanting to go the distance,” MacKay said.

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A new court process to better protect victims

The main reason why cases don’t proceed to charges is because victims don’t want to face the court system, Carlisle said. “It’s one thing to tell me as an investigator about being traumatized sexually. Its another thing to sit in front of a judge, and court, and to face your perpetrator and have to tell it again.”

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“If there was a way to change that and make that an easier process for the victim I would say that’s what I see the victim struggling with the most, facing that process,” Carlisle said.

She says a specialized court, similar to the mental health court in Dartmouth could be one solution. In that setting the judges, crown attorneys, defence lawyers, and support staff would all deal specifically with sexual assault cases and be better trained on them.

“That could be helpful,” Carlisle said.

There are examples of sexual assault specific courts in New York and Pennsylvania. Specialized courts work in cases where there is “buy-in at all levels,” Stevens said. “People, including judges and crowns, have been trained specifically in the legal nuances of sexual assault.”

Legal advice for the victim could make system ‘more open and accessible’

Ontario is launching a pilot project giving paid legal advice to victims of sexual assault in three trial cities. According to the website, the goal is to “help survivors make informed decisions about their next steps.”

The need for more information and supports for alleged victims while a case moves through the court process came up during the Jian Ghomeshi trial where he was found not guilty. While a victim doesn’t have standing in court, MacKay said having legal advice would make it easier for the them to navigate the system.

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“One of the ways to make the system more open and accessible would be to provide some legal advice,” MacKay said. “Chances are, (victims) would get more full service and make a more effective contribution.”

The official opposition is calling for a similar program in Nova Scotia. In April, Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie tabled a bill calling for sexual assault to be given legal representation while the accused is being prosecuted.

‘Disturbing numbers’: Government responds to Global News investigation

Justice Minister Diana Whalen said she’s heard about low numbers in the past but that the more recent statistics reported by Global News were “news” to her.

“What you’re presenting today are disturbing numbers,” Whalen said. “We’re looking at it, that it is a concern and we want to create a situation where people feel safe and supported to come forward.”

The Liberals aren’t yet saying whether they would endorse a specialized sexual assault court in Nova Scotia and also aren’t supporting Baillie’s call for paid legal support.

“Before we just jump into the Flavour of the Day, I do think we have to look and see whether it’s going to work. Its important to have evidence that it makes a difference,” Whalen said.

She said she will decide whether any changes need to be made, once justice department staff have reviewed how Nova Scotia stacks up with other provinces.

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