Ottawa

'He's in my building': Woman living in fear after accused attacker granted bail

An Ottawa woman says she's afraid to leave her apartment after a neighbour charged with sexually assaulting her was released on bail and has returned to their building. The case is raising questions about how the courts balance the rights of the accused against the fears of their alleged victims.

Case demonstrates difficulty of balancing complainant's concerns, rights of accused

The woman, who cannot be identified because of a court-ordered publication ban, says she's scared to leave her apartment. (Laura Osman/CBC)

An Ottawa woman says she's afraid to leave her apartment after a neighbour charged with sexually assaulting her was released on bail and has returned to their building.

Her predicament is raising questions about how the courts balance the rights of the accused against the fears of their alleged victims. CBC is not naming the woman due to a publication ban, standard procedure in a sexual assault case.

After dropping her daughter off at school one morning in October, the woman returned to her Alta Vista apartment building to find a man she didn't recognize standing across the street. She said he followed her inside and into the elevator.

I went, 'OK, but that's my building.' And she said, 'Yeah, I know.'​- Sexual assault complainant

As they reached her floor and she went to exit the elevator, the woman says the man grabbed her buttocks. The woman called police, who arrived and arrested the man.

He was charged with sexual assault and resisting arrest, and was released on bail with conditions. None of the allegations against him has been proven in court.

The woman says she lives in constant fear of encountering her accused attacker in the halls of her building, or seeing him when the elevator doors open. (Laura Osman/CBC)

When Ontario Victim Services called the woman to inform her the man had been released on bail and was returning home, she got a shock.

"I went, 'OK, but that's my building.' And she said, 'Yeah, I know.'"

Since then, the woman says, she's been afraid of bumping into the man.

"Every time the elevator door opens now, I'm worried that he's going to be on the other side. Every time I'm walking through the main doors, I'm worried he's going to be in the lobby. Every time that I walk outside, I'm worried he's going to be at the bus stop again," she said.

"I'm worried about running into him because he's in my building, and I think anybody in my position would feel that way."

Siding with accused

Experts say when it comes to weighing the concerns of victims against the rights of a person accused of a crime, courts tend to side with the accused.

"To effectively demand that an individual accused of a crime leave their residence immediately can often impose undue and unnecessary hardship, and bail conditions must be the least restrictive possible by law," said Dominic Lamb, president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa. 

"Imposing excessive conditions of release is not allowed."

Lawyer Dominic Lamb says it's against the law to place an undue burden on the accused when deciding on appropriate bail conditions. (Martin Weaver/CBC )

In this case, the man, who lives on a different floor of the building, has been ordered to stay away from the woman's floor, and must be accompanied by a family member in common areas of the building.

The right to fair bail is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, while the Ontario Victims' Bill of Rights focuses mainly on the right of victims to be kept informed as court proceedings unfold.

There's much more understanding of the impact of crime on victims and of the need to consider their interests.- Laurence Lustman, Ontario Victims of Crime

That's not to say victims' concerns are ignored entirely, according to Laurence Lustman, a lawyer and vice-chair of Ontario Victims of Crime, an agency that advises the attorney general on victims' issues. 

"For example, Crown attorneys who are dealing with bail hearings have an obligation to consider the safety needs of victims before they take a position on bail," Lustman said.

"They also have an obligation to inform the court ... of any safety concerns or needs of the victim, and in making a decision on bail."

Confidence in the system at stake

Typically, the justice system isn't very adept at taking victims' needs into account, Lustman said. Instead, criminal proceedings are viewed largely as a matter between the court and the accused.

"That's shifting a little bit, and there's much more understanding of the impact of crime on victims and of the need to consider their interests," she said. 

"I think it's becoming much more ingrained within the system that if you don't address the needs of victims, and in particular their safety-related needs, that you're going to erode public confidence in the administration of justice, and that's obviously fundamental to the integrity of the system."

But for the woman who's afraid to leave her apartment, that shift isn't happening quickly enough. She's concerned victims will stop reporting crimes if their safety can't be assured.

"A victim shouldn't have to be scared every time that they leave their house of possibly running into the person that sexually assaulted them," she said.