British Columbia

Jian Ghomeshi charges put spotlight on challenges for complainants

Former Crown prosecutor Wendy Van Tongeren says sexual assault trials are challenging to prosecute and difficult for complainants who have to be on the witness stand.

Former prosecutor Wendy Van Tongeren says sexual assault complainants face an 'adversarial' system

Former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi is facing four counts of sexual assault, and one count of "overcoming resistance" or choking. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

A former B.C. Crown prosecutor is calling for changes in how sexual assault trials are carried out, saying the system makes it difficult for complainants to take the stand.

Wendy Van Tongeren, specialized in sexual assault trials during her 30 year career as a prosecutor.

"It's important to realize that in all trials there's an adversarial system. The complainant will come forward in an environment that isn't friendly from the beginning," she told The Early Edition's Rick Cluff.

On Wednesday, Jian Ghomeshi's lawyer said he will plead not guilty to four counts of sexual assault, and one count of "overcoming resistance" or choking.

According to Statistics Canada only 41 per cent of sexual assault charges resulted in a guilty finding between 2011 and 2012. 

"Our justice system depends on those people coming forward and telling their truths, so we must provide that," said Van Tongeren. 

Here are three key things she feels could be done better:

1. Preparing the complainant for court

Van Tongeren said a bit of preparation can go a long way towards making a complainant feel more comfortable giving her testimony.

She said the prosecutor can prepare them by explaining what will take place, the role of the judge, the role of the prosecutor and what all the proper procedures are for the trial.

"There's not an aura of confusion when they come in and statements are shown to them and they're cross examined, and even where they're to sit," she said.

Van Tongeren said the complainant should also have access to the statement she gave police before the charges were laid, to prepare herself to give her testimony in the trial.

2. Knowing the prosecutor is on their side

Our justice system depends on those people coming forward and telling their truths, so we must provide that.- Former Crown prosecutor Wendy Van Tongeren

Van Tongeren said each case is different and she has seen a multitude of different situations. 

"I've had situations where during the court one woman had to stop and laid down on the bench of the audience. She just couldn't go any further, and we had to adjourn the trial, and it was withdrawn. Another woman, I recall ended up in the psych ward," she said.

She said throughout her career she spent time ensuring witnesses had the support they needed to testify, especially in cases where their families weren't supportive of their decision to come forward.

Van Tongeren said while the prosecutor should help the complainant get the support they need, it is important for the complainant to know the prosecutor is there to represent the Crown, not their lawyer or their friend.

3. Breaking down an 'adversarial' system

Cross-examination can be very difficult for an alleged victim of sexual assault to endure. 

Van Tongeren said Canada's justice system could take a cue from Britain to make it easier for complainants to testify.

She said in the U.K. there is a discussion with the judge in the pre-trial conference about what to expect from the cross-examination.

"It's more in keeping with how human beings operate," she said.

"It doesn't rely upon intimidation or confusion or leading questions that are so suggestible that one can't endure them."