The Current

Why this Quebec politician says courts, not victims, must adapt to deal with sex assault crimes

Parti Québécois politician Véronique Hivon is pushing for a specialized court that would hear sexual assault cases, in the hopes of rebuilding victims' confidence in the justice system. But not everyone is so sure about the idea.

Parti Québécois politician Véronique Hivon pushing for distinct sexual assault courts

In the wake of sex-related charges against Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon, Parti Québécois politician Véronique Hivon is pushing for specialized courts that would deal specifically with sexual assault cases. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

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A Parti Québécois politician who is leading the charge to develop specialized sexual assault courts in Quebec says the need to rebuild victims' belief in the justice system is an "emergency."

"Just the #MeToo movement in itself is an illustration that this confidence is lacking," Véronique Hivon told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, explaining that some people are resorting to bringing their stories to the media instead of making formal complaints.

"The justice system finally has to adapt to those very specific and difficult crimes instead of always asking the victims to adapt to this system."

Hivon imagines these specialized courts existing within a new division of the Court of Quebec, or within a division of the criminal court. Crown prosecutors, judges and other staff would be trained specifically to deal with sexual assault cases, she said.

The push for reform comes after 64-year-old Gilbert Rozon, founder of Montreal's Just for Laughs festival, was charged with sex-related crimes in December. Rozon is charged with indecent assault and rape for events in 1979 involving a single victim.

Another 13 women filed complaints against Rozon, which the prosecution is not pursuing.

High-profile allegations emerge

But despite the idea gathering momentum, some experts are skeptical of creating distinct sexual assault courts.

Eric Sutton, a criminal defence lawyer in Montreal who has had clients facing charges of a sexual nature, said victims should be informed the justice system is not meant to be a therapeutic experience, but a process to determine whether an accused person is guilty or not.

Defence lawyer Eric Sutton is skeptical of creating distinct sexual assault courts. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

"I shudder to think that judges will be trained, have specialized training, on issues of sexual assault," Sutton said.

He cited the fact that it's no longer acceptable to talk about a complainant's sexual history or reputation as examples of how the justice system has made progress to eliminate stereotyping.

"To now start training judges to think a certain way is going to create a bias, possibly a favourable bias, and could result in … wrongful convictions," he said.

Hivon said she's not asking for the courts to become a therapeutic process, but that they don't re-traumatize sexual assault victims.

"I think that the idea is to start from the standpoint of the victim a little bit more," she said.

"Do we just give up and say, 'Well, just too bad for those types of crimes, the justice system just doesn't work because the victims don't have confidence in it? I think that as legislators … we have to find ways."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Produced by John Chipman


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