New program to offer free legal advice to survivors of sexual violence

A new pilot program in central Alberta will give sexual violence survivors free and confidential legal advice, regardless of how much time has passed since the incident.

'We might not know how many people this program will impact ... but we do know how badly it is needed'

Status of Women Minister Stephanie McLean, right, and MLA Heather Sweet announced a pilot program Friday to provide free legal advice to survivors of sexual violence. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

A new pilot program will give sexual violence survivors in Alberta free and confidential legal advice, regardless of how much time has passed since the incident. 

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Edmonton has been given a grant of $700,000 to design and deliver the program, announced Alberta Status of Women Minister Stephanie McLean on Friday.

For the three-year program, set to launch in November, the organization will recruit a team of "trauma-informed, culturally aware" lawyers to work with the sexual violence survivors, said Toni Sinclair, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Edmonton.

"We might not know how many people this program will impact down the road but we do know how badly it is needed," Sinclair said. 

The program will give survivors a better understanding of their legal options, providing lawyers who will outline options such as going through the criminal justice system and filing a human rights or civil claim.

It will offer free legal advice in communities served by the Elizabeth Fry Society including the Edmonton area, central Alberta and some Indigenous communities. 

Sexual violence not well reported 

Research shows that many survivors do not report incidents of sexual violence. 

Movements such as #metoo and #timesup have encouraged more victims to share their stories, but many are still afraid to come forward, said McLean.

Status of Women Minister Stephanie McLean. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

"This fear has a lot to do with why sexual violence is the most under-reported crime in Canada," McLean said, citing data indicating 95 per cent of survivors do not go to police. 

Some people don't want to be re-traumatized or dismissed, while others are intimidated by the legal system, she said.

"When we support survivors to know their rights and choices, we help them to get back the power that they lost and support them in their journey to heal, seek justice, and move forward with their lives."

Survivor applauds initiative

Elizabeth Halpin was at the funding announcement and shared the story of how she was sexually assaulted six years ago by a man she met on Whyte Avenue. 

Elizabeth Halpin said a program like the one announced Friday would have helped her after she was assaulted six years ago in Edmonton. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Her recovery was helped with therapy and support from family and friends, but Halpin said she encountered difficulties when trying to navigate the legal system. 

There wasn't enough evidence for a criminal prosecution and by the time she considered a civil suit, the statue of limitations was up, she said. 

A program such as this one would have helped her, Halpin said.

"It would have added a level of care," she said. "And a little bit more clear direction of where I was going and how to navigate the system." 

Halpin has a tip for those who encounter survivors of sexual violence. 

"Believing them is the most important. Not having to justify yourself or your actions makes a really big difference," she said. 

With files from The Canadian Press