Nova Scotia

Panel explores whether criminal law system good fit for sexual assault cases

The idea that Canada's criminal law system may not be well-suited to addressing sexual assault is the focus of a panel discussion at an international criminal law conference in Halifax this week.

Possible alternatives include restorative justice, specialized courts, lawyers for victims

Right now, if a sexual assault victim chooses not to participate in the criminal law system, they don't have any other options, Diane Crocker said. (Supplied)

The idea that Canada's criminal law system may not be well-suited to addressing sexual assault — and the possibility that the country should explore alternative options — is the focus of a panel discussion at an international criminal law conference taking place in Halifax on Tuesday.

The talk, titled Sexual Assault Law in a Post-Ghomeshi World: Competing Realities and an Exploration of Possible Reforms, is scheduled to take place at the Halifax World Trade and Convention Centre on Argyle Street between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

Denise Smith, Nova Scotia's deputy director of public prosecutions, organized the session. She told the CBC's Information Morning that the intense public interest surrounding the Jian Ghomeshi trial is what led her to focus on the place of sexual assault cases in the criminal law system. 

"I think it very much is topical," she said. "Even though that case is long done, it seems to have struck a chord with the public and invited that type of discussion."

Myth and stereotypes

Smith said neutrality in sexual assault cases can be a challenge in the system as it exists now. 

"The law offers significant protections, but human actors interpret the law," she said. "Though some of those legal protections have now been in place for close to 25 years, we still see in 2016 the application of myth and stereotypes in those prosecutions."

Fellow panelist and professor in the department of sociology and criminology at Saint Mary's University, Diane Crocker, said "we can tinker with law only so much," and it may be time to acknowledge that the criminal law system has a narrow mandate which "may not be well-suited to dealing with a problem like sexual assault."

Possible alternatives

Crocker said some options for reform include providing specialized courts, allowing victims to have lawyers, and more support for civil litigation. "From my perspective, they keep the inherent logic of the criminal law intact," she said.

The other option is to offer sexual assault victims a restorative justice approach, she said. Right now, if somebody chooses not to participate in the criminal law system, they don't have any other options, Crocker said.

"In order to get justice, or reparation, or some kind of redress for the harm you've experienced you have to deal with the burden of proof," she said — and that isn't always achievable. 

Smith said she's looking forward to speaking with international attendees to learn more about how the law is applied in their jurisdictions. The panel discussion is not open to the public. 

A panel in Halifax tomorrow is looking at that question as part of an international criminal law conference. Denise Smith is Nova Scotia's Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions. Diane Crocker is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology 8:06

With files from Information Morning

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