Nfld. & Labrador

Sexual assault victims should have access to free advice, says women's group

Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women says the province should provide legal assistance to help prepare victims for the court system.

Snelgrove trial prompts call to better prepare women for 'brutal' justice system

Janice Kennedy of the Provincial Action Committee on the Status of Women says going to court can be traumatic for sexual assault victims. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

The trial and acquittal of an RNC officer has inspired a call for more help for women reporting sexual assaults.

A women's advocacy group is urging government to make free legal advice available long before cases reach the courtroom.

'It's a very brutal system for the victims, unfortunately.' - Janice Kennedy

Janice Kennedy, co-chair of the Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women, said the Doug Snelgrove case — the officer was acquitted Feb. 24 of sexual assault — shows complainants need help to be better prepared for the trauma of reporting crimes and testifying in court. 

"Often, victims of sexual assault don't understand what's going to happen when they go to police, [when] they lay a complaint and a charge happens — if it happens —  and what's going to happen through the court system."

RNC Const. Carl Snelgrove cries after being declared not guilty verdict Feb. 24 at his sexual assault trial. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Kennedy said a lawyer would be able to advise women on what kind of scrutiny they'll face.

"It's often said that for women, they relive it — it's like a second sexual assault when they go to police," she told the Corner Brook Morning Show. "It's like being sexually assaulted again when they go on the stand and testify." 

A traumatic ordeal

Kennedy said the system needs to be sensitive to the fact somebody has been traumatized, and might be unable to recall every single detail of the experience.

Janice Kennedy of the Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women says sexual assault victims face "a very brutal system" when they testify in court. (iStock)

She said research has shown that people may not remember all the details right away.

"We may forget things at the beginning, it can take time before we remember everything that happened to ourselves. It's a very brutal system for the victims, unfortunately,"she said, adding that the line of questioning "really reinforces victim blaming."

The provincial network wrote Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons on Feb. 27, saying it was pleased to hear the department was considering implementing a program that offers three free hours of legal advice to victims of sexual assault, similar to a program in Ontario.

"We respectfully request that the Ministry of Justice implement this program immediately," the letter said. "We believe this program will help victims to be informed and to navigate an often adversarial and complex system."

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has been asked to make free legal advice available to sexual assault victims, so they can better navigate the court system. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Kennedy said the province's current Victim Services program is "phenomenal" at offering counselling but flawed, as the complainant doesn't get that service unless a criminal charge has been laid.

Kennedy said a toll-free line, with lawyers available to answer specific questions about the process, could work in the province. She said that would be an improvement on the currently available Public Legal Information Access Network's toll-free line, which can only answer more general questions.

Low conviction rate

The network quotes YMCA Canada's published research, which says 460,000 sexual assaults happen every year in Canada but fewer than one per cent result in convictions.

According to the group, "99.7 per cent of sexual assaults do not result in legal sanctions by the criminal justice system."  

Kennedy said free legal advice could encourage more women to report sexual assaults.

While the network had not received a written response from Parsons, Kennedy said they were encouraged by a tweet from him to the St. John's Status of Women Council, saying he had received some news that he was "looking forward to making public soon."

With files from Corner Brook Morning Show