With a high number of unreported cases and a relatively low number of convictions, sexual assault cases are under increasing scrutiny in Canada.

Experts are calling for changes to the way the legal system handles sexual assault trials.

Among the suggestions:

  • Separate, specialized courts, similar to courts that already exist in Ontario for mental-health cases, drug-related cases and for domestic violence. This could include giving complainants in sexual assault cases access to free legal advice, and giving extensive training to everyone involved, from first responders to judges. 
  • Restorative justice, which one researcher described as "a community-supported process whereby survivors are able to outline their needs and also perpetrators are pushed by communities to take accountability in alignment with survivors' needs, but also in alignment with working to change their beliefs."
  • More education about consent and more sexual education generally, at an earlier age. 
  • Another alternative could be civil court, where both parties are required to give evidence and be cross-examined. Anyone can launch a civil suit, but it is an expensive tool where all parties must pay their own legal fees.

How should Canada's court system deal with sexual assault cases?

Readers let us know in our latest CBC Forum — a live, hosted discussion about topics of national interest. Here's some of what they had to say.

(Please note that user names are not necessarily the names of commenters. Some comments have been altered to correct spelling and to conform to CBC style. Click on the user name to see the full comment in the blog format.)

Several commenters lamented that it seemed like little could be done:

"​Special courts will not change the need for proof beyond a reasonable doubt, so that is no big help. Restorative justice only works if the person admits responsibility, which is very rare. Civil remedy already exists, but complainants cannot afford it so who will pay, the state? The insoluble problems are the rights, in criminal law, to proof beyond a reasonable doubt plus an accused's right to remain silent. As long as they stand (likely forever), the basic situation will stay as it is." — Justitia

"Restorative justice is all very well, but how can it apply until after guilt or innocence is determined? That's the part of our justice system that seems to be difficult here: finding ways to minimize trauma for complainants without compromising the necessarily high standard of proof required for a guilty verdict." — JamesPH

Others stressed the importance of educating people long before the court system is needed:

"As a father of a 17-year-old girl, those stats give me chills. Luckily the B.C. curriculum has been very good at teaching concepts like consent, and at home we've made sure that we've talked about her staying safe." — off the post

"I agree with the idea of more education in school. If all genders are more aware from a younger age, I believe it would make a difference. Teaching empathy skills, how to talk about emotions and mental hygiene is part of the puzzle too." — ChangeNeeded

Making sexual assault trials private was a common suggestion:

"Were we to grant anonymity to the accused as well as the accuser, it would remove the power of false accusations and reduce the frequency. Secondly, it would make it easier for some victims to come forward." — Stop To Think

"Complete media ban on reporting of sexual assault trials. No identifying the defendant or the complainant. If the verdict is guilty, then release the defendant's name. Do not identify complainant unless he/she are later convicted of perjury or a crime similar. Do not allow either party to waive ban." — Abc

​"There are conflicting ends: deterrence means publicity, and restoration calls for a more private process. I would like to see a hybrid: a quasi-criminal process by consent of all parties with non-publication of proceedings, and a result with meaningful fines and/or peace bond/probation." — pundit bear

There were a number of other suggestions as well, many of which would reduce the usual rights of defendants:

"Maybe the defendant should not be allowed to opt out of testifying. If the complainants have to suffer through cross-examination, surely the defendant shouldn't get to bypass that." — j23

"Having been on a jury and witnessing its weaknesses, I can safely say that no jury should be used in such trials. I believe these cases need to be heard by a tribunal consisting of judges and subject-matter legal experts." — Jim

And some people felt the system doesn't need to change.

"The current court system is OK and tinkering with it to produce a 'kangaroo court' will not help anyone. False accusations do happen, so complainants must be required to explain themselves in as much detail as is required for juries to be able to make a safe decision." — Bilbo Baggins

You can read the complete discussion below.

Can't see the forum? Click here.

With files from CBC's Laura Wright