P.E.I.'s new sexual assault education law little more than 'window dressing,' says sexual assault centre
MLA who introduced bill says having sexual assault education in the law is important
Prince Edward Island's Bill 110 — the Mandatory Sexual Assault Law Education Act — was proclaimed March 16, 2019. The bill, which amended P.E.I.'s Provincial Court Act, was tabled by then Opposition justice critic, and former police officer Jamie Fox, and was intended to ensure all provincial court judges receive training around the principles of consent, and myths and stereotypes around sexual assault.
Bill 110 originally specified that a person could not be considered for an appointment as a provincial court judge without that training. That section of the bill was not included in the final version of the amended Provincial Court Act.
The bill also originally specified that, "The chief judge shall ... implement a continuing education plan for judges" and that plan "shall include ... complete education in sexual assault law." This section of the bill was changed.
The amended Provincial Court Act now has the requirement for the continuing education plan, but says education in sexual assault law is part of the "goals of continuing education."
It's that language, that speaks about training goals rather than obligations, that Rachael Crowder, executive director of the Prince Edward Island Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, says leaves the new law less than meaningful.
'Not much more than window dressing'
"And it is therefore not much more than window dressing," said Crowder. "That perhaps makes them feel good and looks like they are doing something, when they are actually not doing much at all."
The legislation as it stands doesn't have a lot of teeth to it.- Rachael Crowder, P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre
Crowder said what's missing from the new law is some sort of consequence for not participating in sexual assault training, or an incentive for judges to do so.
"I think that it's an interesting kind of attempt to send a signal, I guess, to the people of P.E.I. that sexual assault is being taken seriously. I think that's important, but I think on the other hand the legislation as it stands doesn't have a lot of teeth to it," Crowder said.
Training already provided, says chief judge
P.E.I.'s Chief Provincial Court Judge Nancy Orr, said assigning training and facilitating professional development is already part of her job. She said when judges met with Jamie Fox and the minister of justice last fall, it was unclear why the legislation was necessary.
We already had a plan. We already were doing that.- Chief Provincial Court Judge Nancy Orr
"We felt that these are things that we're already doing, that we're doing what we can to get educated as best we can, as often as we can, and that legislation in order to indicate that we needed to have a continuing education plan wasn't necessary. We already had a plan. We already were doing that," said Orr.
Orr believes the legislation came partly in response to what she calls "horrendous and unfortunate" comments by a former Alberta provincial court judge who, in a 2014 case, asked a sexual assault complainant why she didn't just keep her "knees together."
'Every case is dealt with in the same manner'
Orr called that an isolated case, and said no concerns with the conduct of judges in P.E.I. have been expressed to her. She said sexual assault cases are some of the most difficult to preside over — but regardless of the crime, judges need evidence to convict.
"They are very difficult matters," said Orr. "I dealt with them when I was counsel and I was a legal aid lawyer for a number of years prior to my appointment.
"But whether it's a case of failing the breathalyzer or whether it's a sexual assault or it's a murder, each and every case is dealt with in the same manner — the Crown has to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offense."
First bill of its kind in Canada
Jamie Fox doesn't see the final language of the law as having been weakened. He said the fact that it is now written into the Provincial Court Act that sexual assault education should be included as part of the training judges receive, is a win.
"Now we're specifically making sure that the act talks about and deals with continuing education as it applies to sexual assault law," Fox said.
He said, for him, the success of Bill 110 is just as much about helping victims feel heard as it is about putting sexual assault law training more prominently on judges' radars. Fox said he remains proud of the bill, and proud that P.E.I. is the first province in Canada to pass one like it.
"You know at the end of the day I have great trust in the system and it's a system I've dealt with all the years. I trust in the system, I have trust in the legislative branch to bring good laws over. I think this law showed how parties can work together," said Fox.
The P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre's Crowder believes regardless of the efficacy of the new law, there's room in our legal system to better accommodate victims of sexual assault.
"Let's put our thinking caps on right and figure out a kinder more balanced and equitable way of dealing with sexual assault cases that still has those protections for complainants as well as understanding the rights of those that are accused as well."
A similar federal bill, C-337, spearheaded by former Interim Conservative Party Leader Rona Ambrose, which focuses on mandatory training for incoming judges, passed in the House of Commons in 2017 and has been stalled in the senate ever since — but work continues to see it pass.