Those who help victims of sexual violence hope a new legal aid society initiative that provides more support will aid those who find themselves dealing with a justice system that can be frightening.
Legal Aid Alberta announced last week that it would begin providing legal help for all complainants whose sexual history, relevant emails or texts, and medical records may come under scrutiny in a trial.
While generally a complainant’s sexual history is not allowed as evidence in sexual assault trials, a judge can grant exceptions. For instance, a judge may allow evidence of prior contact or the nature of a previous relationship between the accused and the complainant.
Legal aid has long provided lawyers to those eligible because of their financial position for legal help to ensure a complainants’s voice is heard by the judge before a decision is made. However, in what could be a complicated process a judge had to issue a court order to connect a complainant with a lawyer.
Now, the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service and Legal Aid have joined forces to make this service available to every complainant in a sexual assault case regardless of their financial circumstances.
Under the new streamlined system, Crown prosecutors will contact Legal Aid directly. Often, a lawyer can be appointed the same day to help the complainant’s with 10 hours of free legal advice and support.
“We’re helping people navigate a very difficult moment in their lives,” said Danny Lynn, senior advisory counsel for Legal Aid Alberta. “Our goal is to ensure the criminal justice system remains fair for everyone.
“Nobody wants to see a trial delayed because a complainant hasn’t had an opportunity to get legal advice. We hope this new system will cut down on court delays by eliminating unnecessary paperwork.”
Rayann Toner, executive director of the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter, believes the changes could help victims of sexual violence.
“Our hope that this initiative will provide a seamless support that is user-friendly, trauma-informed and respectful to victims of sexual violence and allows court cases to proceed in an efficient and cohesive way,” said Toner.
For victims of sexual violence, going through the justice system can take an “incredible amount of bravery and courage,” she added.
“For someone who has experienced sexual violence, the system itself can be experienced as being oppressive, traumatic and re-victimizing.
“This initiative allows for victims to receive legal advice and expertise at a time when it is critical to protect their interests.”