Victims of sexual violence will soon be able to avail of free and independent legal advice in Newfoundland and Labrador following the announcement Tuesday in St. John's of a sexual assault response pilot program.
The federal government is funding the three-year program with an annual grant of $250,000.
Details are still being finalized, but Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons said he hopes the service will be available by the end of this year.
"By offering free legal advice, the sexual assault response pilot program will help ensure survivors of sexual crime have access to justice," Parsons said during a joint announcement alongside federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
"I'm convinced that the better we understand and meet the needs of victims of crime, the more just and more fair our criminal justice system will become," Raybould-Wilson added.
Modelled on Ontario program
The program will be in addition to supports currently provided by the province's victim services program, and will likely be modelled on a similar pilot project underway in Ontario.
There, complainants can receive up to four hours of legal advice, either over the phone or in person. The service does not extend into the courtroom but is intended to give a better understanding of how the criminal justice system works and to answer specific questions about a case.
"We've got situations where victims come out feeling alone. feeling isolated," said Parsons. "This is an opportunity for them to get truly independent legal advice, to give them an idea of what to expect and how to go about this."
Parsons said a pilot project co-ordinator will be hired, and training will be provided to Crown attorneys, victim services staff, private lawyers and police to ensure they fully understand how to deal with gender-based violence and trauma.
Program welcomed by advocates
In Ontario, the pilot is available in a limited number of locations, but Parsons is hoping the Newfoundland and Labrador program will cover the entire province.
"Four hours doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a lot of time for a person who's never had this opportunity before," he said. "They've done nothing wrong. And now they're going to get the opportunity to speak to a lawyer, have advice provided to them, so I think this is a huge step."
Those who advocate in support of victims welcomed the announcement.
"I think it's going to bring people forward ... it's hard when you don't have the financial ability to be able to pay for these services so I think it's going to help a lot of people," said Bev Moore-Davis, a sexual violence survivor and founder of the Miles for Smiles Foundation.
"This is a huge investment into the work of supporting survivors," added Nicole Kieley of the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre.
"A fair justice system is reflected in the supports that we provide to victims of crime," Wilson-Raybound stated.