As It Happens

B.C. woman in 'complete shock' after sex abuse convictions tossed over court delays

It took Jeeti Pooni more than a decade to get justice for her and her sisters, and now she says all her efforts have been undone.

Hundreds of cases have been thrown out since the 2016 Jordan ruling that guarantees right to a timely trial

Jeeti Pooni is one of three sisters at the centre of the documentary called Because We Are Girls about a sexual assault case in Williams Lake, B.C. The conviction was overturned Monday due to unreasonable court delays. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)
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Transcript

It took Jeeti Pooni more than a decade to get justice for her and her sisters, and now she says all her efforts have been undone.

The women — whose stories are at the heart of the 2019 documentary Because We Are Girlshave spent the last 12 years pursuing criminal charges against an older cousin who sexually abused them throughout their childhood in Williams Lake, B.C.

They thought that chapter of their life was finally over when Manjit Singh Virk was convicted on April 6, 2018, of sexually abusing Pooni, sister Salakshana (Surjit) Pooni and their cousin Rajinder Rana.

But on Monday, a B.C. Supreme Court Judge stayed those convictions, arguing that excessive court delays prevented the accused from getting a fair trial.

"It was a complete shock," Pooni told As It Happens host Carol Off. "After all these years, and after a guilty verdict, this is not what one would expect from the system."

Her sister, she said, described it as "writing a big test and you fail at the end."

The Crown has 30 days to appeal the stay. Virk's lawyer, Tony Zipp, said he cannot comment on the case until the appeal period has expired. 

The Jordan decision 

The case is one of hundreds that have been thrown out since the Supreme Court of Canada issued the so-called Jordan decision on July 8, 2016.

In a 5-4 ruling, the high court cast aside drug convictions against Barrett Richard Jordan, citing unreasonable delays. The decision set deadlines of 18 months for provincial court trials and 30 months in superior court.

But Pooni says that if anyone was subjected to unreasonable delays in this case, it was her. 

"I can't even tell you how many times my sisters and I flew up or drove up to Williams Lake only to hear, 'Oh, adjourned,' only to hear, 'Oh, now they filed another application. Oh, now we have to hear this one,'" Pooni said.

"Somebody has to be responsible in moving the case forward in a timely manner and I don't understand all these delays."

Fear and shame 

Pooni was 11 years old in 1980 when she says she was sexually assaulted for the first time. It's a horror she would live through again and again.

But shame and fear caused her to keep it a secret for her entire childhood. At 22, she finally told sisters what happened to her, and she learned they'd all had similar experiences. 

Sisters Salakshana, Jeeti and Kira with their mother growing up in Williams Lake, a small resource based town in British Columbia. (National Film Board)

First, they went to their parents, hoping to address the issue within the family.

But when their parents failed to hold their cousin accountable, the sisters reported their abuse to the police in 2007.

It was another four years before charges were brought against Virk in 2011, and then another eight years before he was convicted on four charges — two counts of indecent assault, one count of sexual assault, and one count of sexual intercourse without consent.

He was found not guilty on one count each of sexual and indecent assault against a third sister, Kira (Kulbir) Pooni.

'The resilience of me and my sisters'

Now Pooni is left wondering what all that time, money and emotional effort was for. 

"I have so many answers that I need, my sisters need, the public needs," she said.

"And this is public tax dollars. This is a multi-million dollar case. I think all Canadians need to know, not just us that have been harmed and abused."

Pooni says the stay of proceedings is not the end of the battle for her and her sisters. 

"It just amplifies the voices of those of us that have been harmed. It just helps bring this issue out even more into the world and the public's eye," she said.

That's why she's taking her concerns directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, openly addressing him in a Facebook video on Tuesday.

In it, she describes her experience in the courts as "dehumanizing and traumatizing" and calls on the government to launch an inquiry. 

"The decision itself is not going to send a positive message for those that have been raped or assaulted or harmed," Pooni said.  

"What will send a positive message is the resilience of me and my sisters."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jeeti Pooni produced by Jeanne Armstrong.