Senate could expedite bill on judicial sexual assault training after 2-year wait

After languishing in the Senate for two years, a private member's bill that would require judges to undergo training on Canada's sexual assault laws could soon pass swiftly through the Red Chamber.

Former Conservative leader Rona Ambrose pushed C-337 to help judges better deal with sex assault cases

Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose was expected to make a pitch to the Senate legal and constitutional affairs tonight to pass her private member's bill mandating sexual assault law training for judges. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

After languishing in the Senate for two years, a private member's bill that would require judges to undergo training on Canada's sexual assault laws could soon pass swiftly through the Red Chamber.

Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose is speaking tonight before the Senate legal affairs committee on Bill C-337, known as the Judicial Accountability Through Sexual Assault Law Training Act. She sponsored the bill before she left politics; it passed a vote in the House of Commons two years ago.

It has been stalled in the Senate ever since.

In her opening remarks to the committee, Ambrose said the vast majority women who are sexually assaulted remain silent about the experience, and according to Justice Canada research, two-thirds of victims said they do so because they "have no faith in the courts."

Ambrose said the bill before the committee contains measures that "are not controversial or overwhelming."

"They represent small and realistic changes that can have an impact on those 95 per cent of sexual assault victims who today remain silent, who truly are fearful to come forward to a system that they believe does not have their best interests at heart," she said. "And I think we can change that system and that reality."

Ambrose said the purpose of her bill is increase confidence in the judicial system. She said that by training for the sensitivities associated with sexual assault cases more victims will come forward. 

"It only takes one negative high-profile case to really taint an institution," Ambrose said. 

"We need to, and we should expect, when a complainant comes forward that the judge presiding over the case has social context training, up-to-date training on rape mythology and of course a full understanding of the law."

Amending the bill

Independent Sen. Andre Pratte is proposing three amendments to address some of the reservations expressed by senators about the bill in its current form. Ambrose said that, after consulting with legal scholars, she supports the changes and believes they will make the bill even stronger.

With just weeks left in the parliamentary session, Ambrose said she hopes it will quickly cross the finish line.

"I'm hopeful and optimistic. We have a little ways to go. We have to get through the committee, then we need to get through a vote in the Senate, but the House of Commons has spoken unanimously on this bill three times now," she said.

Ambrose said it's important for Parliament to send a strong signal about eradicating sexism and racism in the judiciary.

Pratte's amendments would make the following changes to the bill:

  • Instead of requiring all candidates to take sexual assault law training before they are appointed, only successful appointees would be required to do so. Pratte said this would be "more practical and less costly," because only one in 10 applicants are ultimately appointed as federal judges.
  • The Canadian Judicial Council would be allowed to consult with any person or group it sees as appropriate as it develops course materials. The existing bill requires that the courses be developed in consultation with victims and the groups that support them. Some have suggested that could open judges' rulings to appeal, due to a perception of a 'pro-victim' bias in judges' training.
  • The existing version of the bill requires that the Judicial Council report annually on the number of courses offered, the content of courses, the number of judges who have taken the courses — and the number of judges who have heard sexual assault cases without having followed the proper training. An amendment before the Senate would delete that last clause, which Pratte said could interfere with judicial independence and lead to "unfair shaming campaigns" targeting judges.

"(The amendments) correct some of the weaknesses of the bill which raised concerns in the Senate, while providing that federal judges will follow the appropriate training in sexual assault law," Pratte said. "I am confident that the amendments will allow the bill to be passed by the legal affairs committee tonight and by the Senate in a expeditious manner."

Addressing concerns over judicial independence

Sen. Serge Joyal, who chairs the legal and constitutional affairs committee, said the proposed amendments address his concerns about potential infringement on judicial independence.

"As much as I supported the principle of the bill, that there be training offered to justices in relation to sexual offences, I felt that it could be challenged by the court, and I think the last thing that we would want is to adopt a bill that would be challenged the next day by the judiciary," he said.

Joyal said that if the committee reaches consensus on the amendments, it would make it easier for the Senate to pass the bill quickly.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters is also backing the bill.

"I have been a strong proponent of this bill since it was first introduced two years ago. In my many years of practice as a lawyer, I have seen in courtrooms the need for this type of judicial training," she said.

Ambrose has been pushing for the bill's passage since leaving politics, advocating for the new law through social media and a website.


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