A new program in Nova Scotia that provides sexual assault survivors with information about their legal options has referred 30 people to lawyers in its first seven weeks.

Under the pilot project, people assaulted in Nova Scotia are offered two two-hour sessions with a lawyer. 

Participants aren't obligated to report the assault to police. The service allows them to discuss the criminal process, civil actions or even how to proceed with filing a complaint with an employer. 

"We just want to provide the opportunity for victims to be informed about the harm they've experienced and the choices that are available to them," said Dana Bowden, who manages special initiatives for victims at the province's Department of Justice.

The program, which was launched Nov. 1, could also help people prepare to take their sexual assault complaints before university tribunals, she said.

People are also able to get advice about offences that may have occurred years or even decades ago — there's no time limitation in the program regarding when the incidents occurred, only that they happened in Nova Scotia, Bowden said.

Victims can still access the program even if they've moved away.

"If they decide they don't want to proceed with anything, that's totally OK with us. It's about informing the victims about choice." 

Justice Emma Halpern

Emma Halpern of the Elizabeth Frye Society says free legal advice can help people figure out their options after an assault. (Robert Short/CBC)

Emma Halpern, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, said the program can help people who are already under stress after a traumatic event, as the legal system can be challenging to navigate for anyone.

Talking to a lawyer can help people learn "what their rights are under the law and what is available to them through our legal system to bring some form of justice," she said. 

"To me, that's where this initiative can be such an incredible value: where do I go, who do I talk to, what is the help that I need, what are the avenues that are available to me, what can a lawyer offer me to help me figure out how to move forward?"

It may also be helpful to discuss civil options as well as criminal complaints, particularly in historical cases, she said. 

Civil cases, which can award a plaintiff financial compensation for the wrong done, have different thresholds of proof than criminal court. 

In criminal cases, the Crown must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil cases are decided on a balance of probabilities, which means something was more likely than not to have happened. 

Recruiting new lawyers for program

The 10 lawyers who are part of the program — six in the Halifax area, two in Antigonish and two in the Annapolis Valley — have received training about the resources victims may need. 

Bowden said the department hopes to increase the number of available lawyers in the New Year and is currently recruiting in the Amherst, Truro, Digby and Yarmouth areas.  

The pilot project is a partnership between the provincial and federal government, one of several in Canada. The cost is paid through a $810-million federal fund established for victims services. 

The program can be accessed by calling 211 Nova Scotia. After registering, people can make an appointment with one of the participating lawyers. 

"It certainly has had a pretty good uptake," Bowden said of the referrals between Nov. 1 and Dec. 20. 

After calling and getting a certificate in the mail, people have 90 days to contact a lawyer. They're able to use the second session at any point afterward. 

Victims still facing shame, stigma

The new program is just one part of a "complex puzzle" of how to deal with sexualized violence, Halpern cautions.

She said men and women who experience violence still struggle with stigma and shame and can have difficulty accessing supports. 

"Making a phone call to a lawyer for something like this is still outside their realm of what they feel comfortable doing. So this isn't going to reach everybody," she said.

"We can't expect this to be the solution."