Idea for special sexual assault court gains steam in Quebec in wake of #MeToo

A Parti Québécois politician has been pushing a proposal to create a specialized court to hear sexual assault cases for more than a year. Suddenly, it's gaining traction.

Once considered improbable, proposal to be studied by all-party legislative group

'It would be a powerful measure to help rebuild confidence in the justice system,' said Véronique Hivon, the Parti Québécois MNA who first floated the idea last year. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Much as it did in the U.S., the #MeToo movement in Quebec resulted in sexual assault allegations against some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.

None of these names was bigger than Gilbert Rozon, the comedy impresario who built the francophone side of the Just for Laughs empire.

In all, 14 women filed police complaints about Rozon's behaviour. Among them were some of the most recognizable stars in the province. Actress Salomé Corbo said she was 14 years old when Rozon groped her at a party.

But when Crown prosecutors announced last December they were charging Rozon in connection with only one of those complaints, Quebec's justice system was roundly criticized for failing his alleged victims.

"I felt completely powerless," actress Patricia Tulasne, one of the complainants, told Radio-Canada.

"They ask us to come forward, they congratulate us ...  and then they say, 'We believe you, but sorry, there's nothing we can do.'"

"For me, the system is defective."

As anger percolated, a once improbable idea pushed by the second opposition party in the Quebec National Assembly suddenly began to be taken more seriously.

The idea of a special sexual assault court gathered more support after Crown prosecutors decided to pursue few of the allegations against Gilbert Rozon. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

Why not have a separate court division to hear sexual assault cases?

"It would be a powerful measure to help rebuild confidence in the justice system," said Véronique Hivon, the Parti Québécois MNA who first floated the idea last year.

"Our justice system wasn't built for this type of crime."

Premier François Legault said he was open to the idea, and so did members of other opposition parties.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister Sonia LeBel convened an all-party meeting to study the proposal more concretely.

Crisis of confidence

The argument for setting up a distinct court to treat sexual crimes begins with the evidence that few victims feel comfortable submitting themselves to the justice system.

This has been attributed to a number of factors. Law enforcement, for instance, has come under scrutiny for not taking many sexual assault allegations seriously.

But the court process itself — which, for victims, means revisiting painful experiences — can also be psychologically trying, further dissuading many victims from seeing their cases through to trial.   

"What we know about the current model is that it often doesn't work well for complainants," said Elaine Craig, a law professor at Dalhousie University and author of Putting Trials on Trial: Sexual Assault and the Failure of the Legal System.

"It contributes to the re-traumatization of the, primarily women, sexual assault survivors who participate in that process."

Elaine Craig, author of Putting Trials on Trial: Sexual Assault and the Failure of the Legal System, says the current model 'doesn't work well for complainants.' (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The growing lack of confidence in the justice system is alarming and unsustainable, said Pierre Dalphond, a former Quebec Court of Appeal justice recently appointed to the Senate.

"A lot of victims say they weren't well treated by the system, and I don't think we can ignore that," Dalphond said.

"I think the system is able to adapt. It certainly can't remain indifferent to a real demand created by #MeToo, #MoiAussi and thousands of testimonies of people who say, 'I was a victim and the system didn't respond to my needs.'"

Hivon's idea is that by creating a special division of the Quebec Court — much as there are penal, civil and youth divisions — complainants would find themselves in an environment more sensitive to their particular situation.

Judges and lawyers would receive specialized training; legal experts could testify about the effects of trauma, one of which is difficulty recalling details of a harrowing event.

Hivon also envisions victims having access to social workers throughout their ordeal. She hopes, too, that by separating sexual assault cases from the rest of the criminal system, such cases could come to trial more quickly.

The cross-party group examining the idea appeared Sunday on the popular talk-show Tout le monde en parle. Left to right: Liberal Hélène David, CAQ Justice Minister Sonia LeBel, the PQ's Véronique Hivon and Christine Labrie of Québec Solidaire. (Radio-Canada)

Another central element of her proposal is setting up integrated resource centres for victims. These would be places where resources — both legal and psychological — could be streamlined and made easily available.

"Many of these resources already exist, but at the moment they are compartmentalized. The victim has to knock on each and every door in order to get the help they need," Hivon said.

New Brunswick, South African examples  

If Quebec does go ahead with a sexual assault court, it would be a Canadian first. But there are some examples it can draw from.

In 2011, New Brunswick created a domestic violence court in Moncton, which has a designated judge and a mandate to co-ordinate resources for victims.

New Brunswick is also experimenting with a special prosecutions team to handle domestic violence cases.

Hivon's main source of inspiration, though, comes from South Africa, where the legal system has been experimenting with sexual offence courts since 1993, and much more ambitiously since 2013.

Several dozen courthouses across the country have been upgraded to provide separate rooms for victims to testify, private waiting areas and on-call support services.

A study conducted by the Child Witness Institute found victims reported much higher satisfaction rates with the sexual offence courts than with the regular system.

'The lack of confidence is so enormous right now that we have to send a strong signal,' says Hivon. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Hivon says she is not wedded to any particular form that a Quebec version of the idea should take. The important thing, for her, is sending a message to victims.

"The lack of confidence is so enormous right now that we have to send a strong signal that the system is adapting to their reality," she said.  

She does, however, distance herself from proposals to reverse the burden of proof in sexual assault cases, which has the backing of Montreal's new police chief, Sylvain Caron.

The idea, Hivon said, isn't to alter the adversarial nature of the justice system, but rather to mobilize resources in order to limit retraumatizing victims.

It's that basic proposal that garners the broadest support.

For instance, Dalphond, the former judge, is wary about creating a separate sexual assault division of the Quebec Court, believing the existing system can reform itself.

But he acknowledged that a change of attitude was required from all officials involved in sexual assault cases.

"For victims, it's hopefully the one time in their life they'll be in court," he said.

"Judges, though, see hundreds of cases … and sometimes we can forget the victims. We have to be willing to listen a bit more."


Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Alison Northcott


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