Nova Scotia

N.S. women's groups blast 'violation of human rights' after jailing of domestic violence victim

Women's advocacy groups are calling for a reform of the system aimed at protecting domestic violence victims, including the immediate ban on arrest warrants for survivors who are reluctant to testify. The calls come after the jailing of Serrece Winter.

Amid call for ban on arrest warrants, minister orders 'thorough review' of police, prosecutors, court services

Serrece Winter, a domestic violence victim, was worried about her future if she was convicted of assaulting an officer. (Robert Short/CBC)

The group representing women's shelters across Nova Scotia is calling the jailing, restraint, and assault charge against a domestic violence complainant by Halifax Regional Police "absolutely appalling and a violation of human rights."

It says it has only served to entrench fear of police and add additional burden on victims of violence.

Those comments on Friday come after Paul Carver, the chief prosecutor for Halifax, ordered an assault charge against Serrece Winter, 45, abandoned because it was not in the public interest, though he believed there was a reasonable prospect of conviction. 

The case was dropped amid a chorus of denunciations of Crown and police actions, and an outpouring of sympathy for Winter.

Crown attorney Scott Morrison asked for an arrest warrant in November 2019 after Winter failed to testify against a 61-year-old man she feared. It was issued by Judge Alanna Murphy.

Shortly after, Winter was taken to the police lockup where she expressed her frustration and fear of jail to officers before repeatedly harming herself in the lockup.

She was yelled at, grabbed from the cell, strapped into a restraint chair, and charged with assaulting a booking officer. 

Laywer Tony Amoud and Serrece Winter at Halifax Provincial Court on Nov. 18, when an assault charge against her was dropped. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Critics decried what they saw as a lack of compassion and traumatic use of force against Winter, who is part Black, part Indigenous, has mental health conditions, and a history of being abused by partners.

The story came to light after surveillance video of her treatment in the lockup was given to her lawyer as disclosure on the assault charge. Winter shared it with CBC.

'Thorough review' so justice and recovery is easier

The issue is so sensitive that the Public Prosecution Service has a manual on domestic violence which states it is "in the public interest" to respond "swiftly and effectively to reports of spousal/partner violence." 

The policy is pro-arrest, pro-charge and pro-prosecution against the offender.

When a complainant is reluctant or fails to testify, the manual lists adjourning the case as the first option. If an arrest warrant is requested, it "is not intended to punish the complainant/victim."

Serrece Winter was grabbed from the jail cell and strapped into a restraint chair after she harmed herself. (Halifax Regional Police video/screen capture)

Premier Stephen McNeil, Kelly Regan, the minister for the advisory council on the status of women, and Mark Furey, the justice minister, said they were troubled that Winter's ordeal emerged despite the government's commitment to supporting victims of domestic violence.

In an emailed statement, a "thorough review" involving police, Crowns and court services has been ordered to "make the road to justice and recovery easier for victims and survivors," said Furey.

Halifax Regional Police and the Public Prosecution Service have declined interview requests.

Women who are in abusive situations have absorbed a horrific message, said Shiva Nourpanah, provincial co-ordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia.

She's concerned that a woman's fear that leaving an abusive partner is a worse consequence than staying with him has been validated.

"'Oh my God, what will happen if I call the police? What will happen if I'm called to testify?' You know, maybe it's just easier to live with [the abuse] and deal with it," said Nourpanah.

'It really does turn victims into criminals'

Women's Centres Connect, an organization that represents women's centres across rural Nova Scotia, is calling for an immediate ban on arrest warrants and jail cells used against domestic violence complainants.

"It really does turn victims into criminals," said Wyanne Sandler, executive director of the Antigonish Women's Centre, in an interview on Information Morning.

Sandler has heard from her front-line workers that this is not the first time a bench warrant has been used against a victim who's afraid of testifying. 

Pam Rubin, one of the centre's therapists, said she corresponded with the Public Prosecution Service on this issue early last year.

Verona Singer, an adjunct professor in criminology at Saint Mary's University, said there are alternatives to pressuring a woman to face the offender in court.

Verona Singer was head of Halifax Regional Police victim services. (Verona Singer)

Video statements by police of victims are rarely used, she said, but should be utilized by prosecutors when a complainant does not show up in court.

Singer ran the high-risk domestic violence program at Halifax Regional Police that monitors victims who are at risk of murder or serious injury. 

Winter is part of the program that failed to use a trauma-informed approach when she didn't testify, Singer said.

"The fact that she was high risk means that she has been in domestic violence that is incredibly traumatic and incredibly violent."

The arrest and jailing of Winter served to "betray her trust" in the system aimed at protecting her, said Singer.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

With files from Information Morning, Mainstreet and Shaina Luck

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