Rule change connects Alberta sexual assault complainants to lawyers faster

A recent change in Alberta’s court system is speeding up the process for complainants in sexual assault cases to get a lawyer.

Prosecutors can now deal directly with Legal Aid Alberta to arrange legal counsel, without court orders

Legal Aid Alberta is bringing in a new system to better assist complainants in complex sexual assault cases. (CBC )

A recent change in Alberta's court system is speeding up the process for complainants in sexual assault cases to get a lawyer.

Legal Aid Alberta and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service worked together to make it possible for prosecutors to contact the non-profit group directly to find a lawyer to help the complainant. 

Until last month, a judge had to issue a court order to connect a complainant with a lawyer, Legal Aid said in a release on Wednesday.

Danny Lynn, senior advisory counsel for Legal Aid Alberta, says the change will help avert unnecessary trial delays.

"It will certainly protect their privacy interests, and they are better informed as to what to expect. Every time a witness is better informed — particularly in sexual assault matters — it reduces the stress and makes the trial go more smoothly."

It's often especially important for complainants in sexual assault cases to have legal counsel because of the complexity of the rules of evidence, Lynn said.

"For example, the accused sometimes asks a judge for permission to discuss the complainant's sexual history, or to show a jury emails or text messages the complainant sent someone," said Lynn in a release.

"And sometimes the accused asks for permission to see the complainant's medical records or counselling records." 

In such cases, Canadian law protects a complainant's privacy by giving them a chance to tell the judge what they think should happen. 

Legal Aid Alberta is making the free-of-cost service available to every complainant in a sexual assault prosecution in Alberta — who has the right to respond to such evidentiary applications — regardless of their financial circumstances. 

It has staff lawyers as well as a provincewide roster of lawyers in private practice who can be appointed to represent a complainant.

In many cases, Legal Aid can appoint a lawyer for the complainant the same day, the organization says.

Complainants can receive up to 10 hours of free legal advice and support.