Rona Ambrose 'worried' about Senate delays to sexual assault training for judges bill

The former interim Conservative leader is worried senators are sitting on her bill mandating sexual assault training for judges, fearing the legislation could not get to a final vote before Parliament rises for the summer break.

Private member's bill will institute mandatory sexual assault training for judges, push for oral decisions

Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose is worried her private member's bill mandating sexual assaulting training for judges is being delayed in the Senate. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose is worried senators are sitting on her bill that mandates sexual assault training for judges, fearing further delays could threaten the bill's passage as a possible prorogation of Parliament looms.

"I am worried, but I'm still optimistic," Ambrose said in an interview with CBC News. "Justin Trudeau gave me his word that he would do everything he can to help see it through."

Ambrose said her private member's bill is stuck at second reading in the Senate, more than a month after it was unanimously passed by all parties in the House of Commons. She wants members of the Red Chamber to take action now, before the imminent summer recess, to help restore confidence in the judicial system for sexual assault victims.

"I'm not sure what's going on, but I've offered to meet with any senator ... it's my number 1 priority," Ambrose said. "I'm hopeful that senators feel the same way about the importance of these kinds of issues."

The legislation will make it mandatory for all lawyers to pursue sexual assault training before seeking a judicial career, something she says is needed after a series of recent high-profile cases revealed many judges adhere to archaic stereotypes about women who are subjected to sexual violence.

For example, former Federal Court judge Robin Camp, berated a sexual assault complainant for not fending off her attacker. Camp asked the woman, "Why couldn't you just keep your knees together?" and, "Why didn't you just sink your bottom down into the basin so he couldn't penetrate you?" (Camp later resigned after the Canadian Judicial Council recommended he be removed from the bench.)

Accusations of Senate delays

It is not the first time there have been complaints of delays in the upper house. Conservative senators have adjourned debate on a whole host of Liberal government legislation for months, including the transgender rights bill. Tories have also pushed off votes on the late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger's bill to change the lyrics of O Canada for more than a year. Independent Senator Frances Lankin has recently said it's hypocritical to demand swift passage of Ambrose's legislation while working to kill Bélanger's bill.

Ambrose said she hoped her bill is not facing delays because of hurt feelings over Tory treatment of changes to the national anthem act. "Let's not hold up a bill because of something like that," she said. "I think that would be a terrible message to send to women who are really hopeful."

The late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger's bill to change O Canada has been before the Senate for more than a year. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Edmonton-area MP said it's fair for the Senate to fulfil its "sober second thought" function, but she said that hasn't been entirely possible because the bill is still awaiting a vote to send it to committee for further review.

"Stakeholders are getting very anxious because this is the first time in 30 years there's been a change to the way sexual assault law is dealt with in the courts. This is really about education, and it's about making sure judges have training. Whoever applies for the bench needs to have that box checked," Ambrose said.

Only one in every 10 victims report their sexual assault, Ambrose said, and the problem has become more acute. "They feel the system will revictimize them. Now people on the frontline who are dealing with sexual assault victims actually don't counsel victims to go through the court system or to go to police [because of] the way they're treated in the courtroom."

Important to Ambrose

The bill is particularly important to Ambrose as it is the last piece of legislation she will sponsor before she formally retires from Parliament after handing over the reins to Andrew Scheer at the party's convention last month.

While the bill has support from the government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, he cannot whip a caucus and there are other members of the Red Chamber who have concerns about the bill.

Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer, a longtime senator who has been tapped to train judges in the past, is worried the bill could lead to further delays in the court system because it will require judges to not simply render oral decisions in sexual assault cases.

"It would not be in the public interest to add unnecessary barriers to timely determination of criminal charges," Jaffer said in the Senate last week.

Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer has concerns about the impact Ambrose's bill would have on judicial independence. (Parliamentary website)

"These issues that some people are raising are easily addressed," Ambrose said, noting her original bill was amended to allow courts to release audio recordings of oral rulings.

She said there is currently no openness or transparency to rulings as one has go through the arduous — and expensive — task of seeking transcripts under access to information laws, something the bill will rectify. 

"Advocates can start to literally comb through the system and see if judges are doing their job, and that's important because there is a sense that some of them are not," Ambrose said.

Jaffer has also raised concerns about maintaining judicial independence and the longstanding Canadian practice that Parliament will not interfere with the work of the judiciary.

She said the group that represents lawyers in Quebec raised red flags about the government micromanaging how the courts manage the litigation process. The Canadian Judicial Council has also said the bill interferes with its ability to "maintain control over judicial education and judicial discipline matters."

"Some of this is new territory, but it's worth the risk," Ambrose said. "Look, is it perfect? No. We could probably do a lot more," she said.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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