PEI

New supports for survivors of sexual violence on P.E.I.

Crown prosecutor Lisa Goulden is now overseeing all cases involving sexual offences against adults and children on P.E.I. In addition, a new program called RISE also offers free legal advice to anyone age 16 and over who has experienced sexual violence.

Free legal advice from RISE, and Crown prosecutor now assigned to oversee sexual assault cases

'We do our best with the tools that we are given,' says Crown attorney Lisa Goulden, on her office's handling of sexual offences. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Sexual offences can be the most challenging cases to investigate and prosecute in court. Yet with the rise of the #MeToo movement, the number of sexual assaults reported to police on P.E.I. continues to increase, doubling in recent years. However, the number of cases leading to criminal charges has not.

The addition of a senior prosecutor in Charlottetown to oversee all sexual offence cases in the province is one of the new supports in place to help.

Lisa Goulden, an attorney with more than 20 years experience with the Crown's office in P.E.I., is part of a team of nine prosecutors, including the director of prosecutions, handling these files, along with a wide mix of other criminal cases. She acts as a resource for other prosecutors, and as a liaison with police and outside agencies. 

"They're very difficult. It would be virtually impossible for one person to do it all," said Goulden.

'A very complex process'

Sexual offences are heard in courts across the province, sometimes at the same time, and preparing for them can be time-consuming.

"There could be 10, 15 appearances" before a case goes to trial, Goulden said. "It is a very complex process and there are a lot of moving parts."

These are crimes that happen in silence and in secret- Lisa Goulden

Those appearances can cover admissibility of evidence (including videotapes and statements of children, and medical records), motions on accused people representing themselves, and appointing support persons to help children and those with a mental disability. 

Prosecuting sexual violence cases is challenging because they often come down to one person's word against another's.

There can be 10-15 pre-trial appearances for sexual offences, says Crown attorney Lisa Goulden. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"Sexual assaults do not happen in the public forum. You're not going to have witnesses that saw the incident. You might have witnesses if you're lucky, that would have been around circumstances and can provide corroboration. But often these are crimes that happen in silence and in secret," Goulden said.

No statute of limitations

The other challenge is the time that often lapses between the offence and reporting.

Complainants come in when they're ready, said Goulden. While some report to police immediately, it's not unusual for days, weeks or sometimes years to go by before they report — if at all.

There is no statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual offences, or any serious criminal offence, in Canada, but that time lapse can create additional obstacles.

"The challenges with those historical sexual assaults is, of course, the availability of witnesses from that time and the availability of physical evidence or even an ability to locate where it occurred," said Goulden.

3rd option recently brought in in P.E.I.

P.E.I. recently adopted the "third option" for reporting sexual offences, which allows survivors to have physical evidence collected at a hospital and held by RCMP for up to a year, to allow them time to decide whether they want to file an official complaint with police.

There have been other recent charges including allowing children to testify via video link, or have their testimony recorded in advance and played in court, to reduce potential trauma. 

In addition, changes to the Criminal Code in December 2018 provide a better balance to support victims, said Goulden, including clarifying the definition of consent, and requiring defence lawyers to establish the relevance to the specific charge when applying to the court for access to the complainant's medical records, and to call expert witnesses.

Also, a complainant can now get a lawyer to make submissions at pre-trial hearings.

"The goal there is to ensure trial fairness, not just to the accused, but also to the complainant," said Goulden

"It is a balancing act," she said. "We always face the fact that an accused person is presumed innocent. And these are very serious allegations that can have serious implications for a person. 

"On the flip side, sexual offences are extremely violative of the complainant. So that person's physical, mental and emotional integrity has been impacted."

Number of complaints increasing

Since the #MeToo movement went viral in October 2017, the number of sexual reports reported to police has doubled, and the increase is even higher for sexual violations against children, some of whom are adults coming forward to report abuse they endured as children.

On top of that, there's been an increase in reports of child pornography, child luring, distribution of intimate images and a number of other sex-related offences. 

"One Crown attorney cannot be responsible to do it all. It is definitely a burden that we all share," said Goulden.

"It's a serious problem and we're addressing it the best we can," said Director of Prosecutions John Diamond. He also pointed out Victim Services is a big asset: "Encouraging victims as they go through the process and make sure they get the help they need."

Highest rate of 'unfounded' cases in country

In addition, P.E.I. has the highest rate of "unfounded" sexual assault cases in the country, which means police have labelled them as crimes that did not take place.

Advocates believe some police are mislabelling cases to include those where they did not have enough evidence to pursue a charge, and that this could be rectified by a more extensive search for evidence. 

We can identify persons that might be of interest to us.- Lisa Goulden

In response to that concern, the Crown's office has introduced a more formal approach to deciding when to lay a charge. In the past, police consulted the Crown, but now all cases are brought to the Crown to see if "we can identify any areas that we could strengthen. We can identify persons that might be of interest to us for the case that the police might not be seeing," said Goulden.

"We do our best with the tools that we are given," she said. "I think that we have been improving in our service to the complainants."

Goulden noted that not all complainants want to go to court.

No matter what they decide, she said the best way friends and family can help is to listen, be available and supportive.

RISE offers free support

In addition to changes in the Crown Attorney's Office, P.E.I. has a new program called RISE, which offers free legal resources and support to those who have experienced sexual violence or sexual harassment in the workplace.

The program is offered through Community Legal Information and has helped 50 clients since it started in April 2020  — 33 of whom were referred to a lawyer for more information.

The RISE program offers four hours of free legal advice, says Cassandra Goodwin, RISE's program manager. (Rhyanne Beatty/Thoughtful Creative)

Lawyers offer up to four hours of free consultation — in English or French — and support for navigating the justice system, and referrals to community services. It's available to anyone 16 or over.

There are 13 lawyers currently involved with the program, all trained in trauma awareness, to better understand the variety of ways people respond to being assaulted. 

"The lawyer can spend time kind of reviewing what your options might be or what it might look like to go through a criminal case or a civil case," said RISE program manager Cassandra Goodwin.

Sarah Dennis is legal navigator with the RISE program on P.E.I. which offers free legal resources and support to those who have experienced sexual violence and workplace sexual harassment. (Rhyanne Beatty/Thoughtful Creative)

"They're sensitive to how trauma can show up, how it affects the brain and how it can show up in behaviour," she said.

The sexual violence support aspect of the program was funded by the province for two years, which ends in March 2022. Federal funding which supports sexual harassment in the workplace cases is in place until March 2024. 

"The goal of the program is to help people feel like they can make informed decisions about what the next step is for them," said Goodwin. "It can be an overwhelming time."

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sally Pitt

Producer

Sally Pitt is a producer with CBC and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in online, TV, radio and print. She specializes in justice issues and also works with the CBC Atlantic Investigative Unit. You can reach her at sally.pitt@cbc.ca.

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