Experts discuss impact of COVID-19 court delays on sexual assault victims

Click to play video: 'Experts discuss impact of COVID-19 court delays on sexual assault victims' Experts discuss impact of COVID-19 court delays on sexual assault victims
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a lot of institutional delays and that includes in the court system. Taz Dhaliwal looks at how sexual assault victims are being impacted by delays in their proceedings – Sep 21, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause many institutional delays, including court proceedings, experts say victims of sexual assault are having to wait longer for legal closure, which may lead to further traumatization and stress.

“Victims often look to court for that final piece of putting that behind them, having to go through court, having it heard, having their voice heard, really,” said Bill Kaye, the project coordinator for Domestic Violence Action Team in Lethbridge.

“That’s been delayed, and [so has] that whole healing process, getting over it and moving on.”
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Read more: ‘Boggles my mind’: Alberta law firm sounds alarm as COVID-19 grinds courts to a halt

Kaye said it can already take a considerable amount of time for these cases to go through the criminal justice system, the further delays caused by the pandemic may only make it that much more difficult and time consuming for victims.

Kristine Cassie, CEO of the Chinook Sexual Assault Centre, agrees that a disruption in legal proceedings can impact victims negatively as they worry about receiving recourse in a timely and adequate fashion.

“They’re looking for some sense of justice and the quicker it can be dealt with is often the better for them,” Cassie said.

“The waiting, the not knowing, the delays in court, or when things are adjourned multiple times, can add to levels of frustration and again, reintroduce more trauma for them,” she said.

Read more: Lethbridge sexual assault workers debunk myths during Sexual Violence Awareness Month

Cassie said there’s also some confusion when it comes to victims knowing that they actually can bring support with them to court as long as they follow the proper procedures to make a formal request for such accommodations.

“Although, now they’re doing in-person trials with judge only, it’s limited space because of social distancing and rightfully so, [courts] have their own COVID measures that they have to have in place,” Cassie explained.
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“Victims sometimes don’t know they can apply through the Crown to have a support person with them or a support agency with them.”

Cassie said the earlier victims apply for the application and talk to the Crown about the possibility of having support present, the better, adding it’s important to keep people aware of their rights and what they can have access to.

Read more: Past trauma resurfaces for victims of sexual violence during COVID-19: advocates

Cassie said the centre has noticed there are some “pretty big delays” when it comes to protection orders.

“When it was heard in front of one judge, who was going to carry the case through to the end, it’s now been pushed over to another judge since that time,” she said.

“They’re pulling from their pool of judges to get as much of the work done as possible,” Cassie said. Adding, although the extra effort is appreciated, this is one of the ways in which the continuity of the information of the case can be disrupted.

Read more: Alberta courts to see more in-person hearings starting July 6

Global News received a statement from Alberta’s Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, which reads:

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“All Albertans deserve equal access to our provincial justice system, even during a pandemic.

“The government of Alberta recognizes that victims of sexual assault must receive swift justice, while protecting the safety of all those involved through physical distancing and other recommendations made by Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer.

“Alberta’s government is working with sexual assault centres to provide counselling, support and advocacy to Albertans in need. Community partners continue to offer confidential and accessible support and information to those at risk of or experiencing sexual violence.

“Specifically, Alberta’s government has established an interim victims assistance program that gives victims of serious violent crime – including sexual assault – and families of homicide victims quick access to counselling if they need it.”

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A dire warning from an Alberta law firm as COVID-19 brings courts to a halt – May 21, 2020

“The Chinook Sexual Assault Centre (CSAC) in Lethbridge also provides specialized police and court support to victims of sexual violence. The Chinook System Navigation and Court Support Specialist exists specifically to support survivors as they navigate the justice system. Chinook works with the Lethbridge Family Services (LFS). The CSAC has contracted with LFS to host counselling at the centre four days per week. Counselling is provided at no charge and is for adults who have experienced sexual violence. To access this service, call or drop in to the centre to start the intake process. Chinook’s main telephone line is 403-694-1094.

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“All police-based victim service units are also trained in providing victims of sexual assault with the information, support or referrals to local services that they need throughout their involvement in the criminal justice systems.

“Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence is available at 1-866-403-8000. This is a call/text/chat line that is available to all victims of sexual violence. The One Line offers support and referrals to those who are in need of support.”

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