Written by: Charlene Aviles, Peak Associate
Content warning: mentions of sexual assault
The Department of Justice Canada announced on May 7, 2021 amendments to the Judges Act requiring provincial superior court judges receive training on “sexual assault law and social context.” While judges are required to state the rationale behind their ruling in sexual assault cases, Bill C-3 intends to prevent misconceptions regarding sexual assault.
“Too few survivors feel confident coming forward and of those who do, only a small fraction result in a conviction. Canadians expect better. This legislation will help ensure that our legal and justice systems treat survivors of sexual assault with greater dignity and respect,” said Honourable Maryam Monsef.
Sexual assault cases have high attrition rates, meaning that few cases are processed by courts. According to a 2017 report, “In Canada, the number of alleged perpetrators typically far outweighs the number of people who are convicted and sentenced for their crimes.”
Examples of insensitivity include the Wagar trial, where Honourable Robin Camp asked the survivor derogatory questions. Some argue this demonstrated ignorance and misunderstanding towards sexual assault cases. After conducting an inquiry, the Canadian Judicial Council recommended that his term as a judge should end. After Camp retired, the Law Society of Alberta reinstated his license to practice law.
Underreporting of sexual assault is one factor in high attrition rates. According to the Department of Justice, around 83% of sexual assaults remained unreported in 2014. In the same study, only 42% of sexual assault cases resulted in the judge finding the suspect guilty.
Based on the Public Prosecution Services of Canada’s guidelines, Crown prosecutors may not pursue a case (not limited to sexual assault cases) for various reasons, including the likelihood of conviction.
According to the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, an organization promoting gender equality through research, survivors who turn to their support networks or resources may experience revictimization. This involves survivors being blamed for assaults.
Similarly, the Justice Canada Knowledge Exchange said marginalized women are susceptible to stereotypes regarding sexual assault, which may decrease survivors’ confidence in the court system.
In an email interview with The Peak, Ian McLeod, senior advisor of media relations at the Department of Justice, detailed the recent amendments to the Judges Act and the Criminal Code.
“The Bill is aimed at enhancing public confidence and sexual assault survivors’ confidence in the criminal justice system. The changes also underscore the government’s commitment to promote a justice system in which sexual assault matters are decided fairly, without the influence of myths and stereotypes, and with dignity and compassion for survivors,” said McLeod.