Members of Quebec’s three main opposition parties met with the justice minister Monday 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 François Legault has said he is open to the idea.
Veronique Hivon of the Parti Québécois, 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 Québec, Hélène David of the Liberals and Christine Labrie of Québec solidaire.
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 in the — 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.”
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.
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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.
Nothing concrete was decided at Monday’s 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 discussions” 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.”