A sexual assault survivor has filed a lawsuit against Halifax Regional Police and the RCMP alleging that they conducted a negligent and discriminatory investigation into her sexual assault.
Carrie Low alleges that the Sexual Assault Investigative team, an integrated unit comprised of Halifax Regional Police and RCMP officers, committed numerous errors throughout the investigation.
“We ended up here as a last resort,” said Mike Dull, Low’s lawyer.
According to Dull and Emma Halpern with the Elizabeth Fry Society, the decision to file a civil suit came after the original investigator on the case came forward with allegations that there weren’t simply errors in the investigation, but there was a conscious effort to curb it.
Halpern says attitudes like that are part of why there is a stigma associated with being a sexual assault complainant.
“They create a very dangerous climate for women where they can’t trust our law enforcement system to actually be there to protect them,” she said.
“They create an environment where women are being blamed for the harms that are directed at them, where women are being blamed for being victims of crime.”
The statement of claim filed with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, alleges that police failed to visit the scene where the rape is alleged to have happened, that officers didn’t properly handle Low’s clothing as evidence and failed to send it for examination in a timely fashion after the May 2018 incident.
“I am proceeding with this lawsuit in the hopes that no other women will have to go through what I have had to endure for the past 20 months,” Low, 43, said in an emailed comment to the Canadian Press.
“I don’t feel heroic or brave, I am just trying to seek justice for myself and possibly for other women with similar experiences. Hopefully this will be the catalyst for real change in the way sexual assaults are investigated.”
The statement of claim alleges that rather than conduct a meaningful investigation into Low’s sexual assault that police took “active steps to close the investigation.”
“Without evidence, the defendants labelled the plaintiff ‘a drunk’ and ‘a liar’ and, for this reason, instructed at least one investigating officer not to investigate the merits of her sexual assault or properly collect evidence pursuant to the standards required of a reasonable, competent policing agency,” the statement of claim reads.
The lawsuit alleges that by giving Low this label, police internally classified the plaintiff’s allegations as being “unfounded.”
The claim has not been proven in court and as of Monday afternoon, no statement of defence had been filed.
According to Low’s lawyer, this lawsuit is the first of it’s kind if Nova Scotia, and there have been no other reported decisions of this kind in Canada.
“She’s the first victim of sexual assault to seek a civil remedy against the police who she went to for help,” said Dull.
“She’s a trailblazer hoping to effect change.”
Low already has another case making its way through the courts stemming from the same incident.
In 2019, Low submitted a complaint that police had mishandled her case.
Her affidavit to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court at that time said the toxicology report had not been conducted “as of one year following the sexual assault.”
But in mid-2019 Low received a letter from Nova Scotia’s office of the police complaints commissioner notifying her that her case wouldn’t be reviewed because it wasn’t made within a six-month time limit.
“Our argument has always been that there were cumulative failures over time, they continue to fail, there was no moment of incident, but she was denied access to the complaint process with HRP,” said Halpern.
Low is now working with the Elizabeth Fry Society to argue that under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Nova Scotia regulation should be struck down as unconstitutional.
The case has caught the attention of Dartmouth MLA Claudia Chender who submitted a bill to change the regulations.
Although the bill was never passed, Chender says she was told by the Nova Scotia’s justice minister that the change in their bill was moving forward, and the time limit for bringing complaints against police would be changing from six months to one year.
But Chender says it still doesn’t go far enough because it overlooks their request of “principle of discoverability.”
“It’s recognized in legal circles that a time limit like that should run from when the harm was discovered,” said Chender. “So in Miss Low’s case she didn’t realize her case was being mishandled until months and months and months after she reported it, so it’s logical then that if she wants to lodge a complaint the time period should run from when she knew, not when it happened.”
Court dates for Low’s challenge to have her complaint against police processed have been set for March 3, 2020, in Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
Halifax Regional Police said in a written statement sent that “it would not be appropriate for us to comment on the specifics of the criminal investigation or in relation to a civil matter that is before the courts.”
“It is important to reiterate that this is an open and active file that is being thoroughly investigated,” the statement read.
With files from the Canadian Press