Ontario Launches Free Legal Advice Program for Sexual Assault Victims

Ontario will launch a $2.8-million pilot program this spring granting survivors of sexual violence access to free legal advice, one of the moves to overhaul the legal system that women's groups have called for in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi trial.

Those living in Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay who allege they have been sexually assaulted and are 16 or older can apply for up to four hours of independent legal counsel. The project was announced last March as part of other provincial initiatives to combat sexual violence.

If the program's successful after two years, it will expand to other communities, said Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. He did not say exactly how the ministry would measure success.

Civil vs. criminal courts

Amanda Dale, the executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic — which will oversee part of the project's Toronto arm — said that she wants to look at whether it helps women better understand what to do after a sexual assault, whether they choose to go to police and criminal court or the civil justice system.

"It's at the very outset that people most need the information about the system and all the options available to them," Dale said. "The program's not necessarily to increase convictions but to make people aware of all the choices they can have."

That could mean bypassing the police and the criminal courts, institutions excoriated online and at rallies after Ontario court of justice Judge William Horkins acquitted Ghomeshi, 48, on four counts of sexual assault and one of choking on Thursday.

The shifting narratives of the three complainants simply raised too much doubt about the credibility of the rest of their testimony to convict Ghomeshi, Horkins said in his decision.


Demonstrators say there needs to be alternative justice for sexual assault survivors. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

There are other less adversarial options than going to the criminal courts.

That includes the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, Dale said, in which victims of violence can receive funding to offset health costs or lost income due to an alleged crime. 

One of the complainants in the Ghomeshi case applied to the board for compensation. According to Ghomeshi's defence lawyer, Marie Henein, the board ruled in the woman's favour.

Data about how many sexual assault survivors opt for civil compensation was not publicly available. But it remains the most under-reported offence in Canada, with only about five per cent of victims filing a formal complaint in 2014, Statistics Canada's victimization survey found.

'Getting those women better prepared'

Dale said the program may not immediately change those figures or the rates of conviction — which sat at 45 per cent last year, the second-lowest of all violent crimes.

"But the hope at the end of the day is that we're better able to shift the culture of the courtroom by getting those women better prepared for the day they enter it."

Those looking for legal advice can apply for it immediately after an incident, Dale said of the pilot program. Once the program launches, those in the three test cities can apply for a voucher that will pay a participating lawyer or attend a community legal clinic that will be run through the Schlifer Clinic. While the system may be similar to legal aid, people within any income bracket are eligible.

'There's no one in the courtroom representing you unless you have the courage to ask the judge.'- Mandi Gray, sexual assault complainant

Mandi Gray, meanwhile, has already spent $5,000 on legal advice leading up to the sexual assault case in which she's a complainant. The trial began on Feb. 1, the same day as Ghomeshi's.

Having a lawyer helped her prepare for the scrutiny of cross-examination, which is why Gray said she supports the provincial initiative — but she said it does not go far enough.

Jian Ghomeshi verdict

Defence lawyer Marie Henein congratulates her client Jian Ghomeshi after Judge William Horkins acquitted him of four charges of sexual assault and one charge of overcoming resistance by choking. (Pam Davies)

The lawyers need to have standing, she said, something that would allow them to interject at trial should the defence violate rape-shield laws, which limit questioning about a witness's sexual or medical history.

"There's no one in the courtroom representing you unless you have the courage to ask the judge, 'Hey, do I have to answer this?' which is really intimidating, because you also have the potential of that being used against you and you being considered a combative witness."

But Ottawa would have to change the laws at the federal level to make that possible. In limited cases, a trial judge might allow it if there were a vulnerable witness, typically a child or a person with a cognitive disability.

Dale said that it's unlikely complainants will have lawyers with standing in the near future, because of the often glacial debates needed for legal reform.

"It's a conversation that may be on the lips of people because of recent events, like the Ghomeshi trial," she said. "Because it's drawn so much attention it's created the opportunity to talk about these things."

By Laura Fraser, CBC News