Montreal app aims to connect sexual assault victims, help them take legal action

A Montrealer is looking to connect sexual assault victims with a new online application. But experts say the plan raises legal issues.

Tanya Zajdel hopes to launch TeamUpNow in 2018, but experts say the idea raises legal issues

Edgard Mbayen helped Tanya Zajdel launch the app, called TeamUpNow. (Jay Turnbull/CBC)

Tanya Zajdel calls herself a survivor of sexual violence. The Montreal woman spent years in an abusive relationship.

Reflecting in a coffee shop in Montreal's NDG neighbourhood, Zajdel says she came out of the experience stronger and smarter.  

"My approach was to intellectualize it and say, 'Ok, what are my options?' I explored a criminal case, a civil case, a civil case across a border because this was a cross border, international sexual assault case," she says.

Zajdel soon understood how difficult it is for victims to get justice and wanted to make things easier for others going through something similar.

She developed an online application called TeamUpNow, which maintains a database of alleged sexual assaulters, harassers or people who knowingly transmit sexual diseases.

Victims can enter their aggressor's name into the database and see if anyone else has complained about that person.

The victims then have the option to meet up to determine whether their complaints merit a call to police or a lawyer.

"People fill out a report online and we connect survivors who share the same aggressor so they can take legal action together as a team," she said.

Legal issues?

The app raises some obvious legal questions. 

How will developers ensure a jilted ex isn't trying to get revenge by means of a smear campaign? And what are the ramifications of someone having their name on the list after maybe acting inappropriately, but not illegally?

"The consequences are vast and immeasurable," Eric Sutton, a criminal defence lawyer, said in an interview at his Montreal office.

"There could be criminal allegations of libel and enormous civil consequences for the damages caused."

Sutton says the app's developers are, at the very least, pushing the limit.

"The real justice is criminal justice and it would be very unfortunate if people resort to this type of application just to tarnish someone, or tar and feather someone, maybe justifiably, but without taking it to the more concrete level which is court," he said.

In a statement, Montreal police also stressed that "filing a formal complaint is the recognized way for the SPVM to conduct an investigation."

Meant to empower victims

The team behind the app, however, believes the tool will empower victims and is confident it will not break any privacy rules.

Warwick Walton, McGill law graduate who is helping Zajdel,  says the team has consulted privacy lawyers.

"A lot of the information is encrypted in the database and only accessible to other people who have made a report," he said.  

"The information that is being released about this individual is so constricted and so meaningless without the further context that it's very difficult to make any conclusions based off of it."

Edgard Mbayen reached out to Zajdel after hearing about the story on Facebook. He and signed on as a volunteer product manager.

Mbayen felt compelled to do something because some of his friends are sexual assault victims.

"Somehow I feel I should be doing this because there are a lot of people out there that don't have any help and they think that they will not find help actually."

After #metoo

It has been a momentous year in terms of sexual assault.

Dozens of public figures were in the headlines, accused of sexual harassment or assault. And the #metoo campaign empowered women across the world to talk about their own experiences.

Zajdel began working on the app before the hashtag swept across the social media landscape, but she says it has been inspiring.

"It means we're on cusp of positive change because once you start discussing an issue that means you can start discussing the solutions," she said.  

Zajdel hopes TeamUpNow can play a part in those discussions. It is expected to be up and running by spring.