Quebec inching toward a court that hears cases of sexual assault

QUEBEC — Quebec’s Assembly of the Holy Trinity is poised to vote today on legislation — which, although potentially a bit ambitious, if it passes, would set the stage for a unique special court in a province many wrongly believe to be less progressive than the rest of Canada.

First proposed in the fall, the bill would set up a court dedicated to women’s rights to hear civil cases of sexual assault in the province. It would be modeled on the Marie-Victorin Court in Quebec City, whose only involvement is presiding over accusations of violence against women — and the lack of space for hearings in the region is an issue that the Quebec government has made clear it will try to resolve.

“This particular court is there to hear and decide the cases in a simple and direct way without the aggrandizement, so to speak, or the secondary-decision-making power of a more traditional and more theocratic tribunal,” lawyer Danielle Saint-Jean, who represents the women’s rights group Aechà, told the Quebec daily Le Soleil.

Saint-Jean, who has defended 10 sexual assault victims in the province in recent years, told the Post yesterday the bill has the support of women’s rights groups across the country and is making its way to Parliament in the coming months. She said it is a “perfect example of how far we’ve come in Canada.”

Though the legislation passed the committee phase last month and was touted by the federal Justice Minister last week, there will be some tweaks as more public hearings are set to take place.

“Parliamentarians have been listening to Canadian victims of sexual violence and recognizing they need a better option in Quebec,” Sarah Kramer, director of legal advocacy for women’s groups Front de libération du Québec and Écoute, told the Post.

“After almost two years, we are proud that Bill 270 is finally on the verge of becoming a reality. Quebec deserves a system that responds to the urgent needs of victims and responds to them for the entire life of their victims, not just until it gets too cold or too expensive.”

Saint-Jean, who works for a well-known LGBTQ++ rights organization, said the bill would make it easier for women to report the crime of sexual assault by creating an independent tribunal of speciality judges to hear them.

Because of its new status, according to Saint-Jean, the specialized court would bring “the new-found respect” Quebec is boasting in light of its legislation on gender equality to its justice system. That, she said, would be a “great example of how to deal with issues related to justice when victims are equal participants.”

She said in light of these kinds of court systems, Quebec would be setting an example for Ontario — the other part of the province targeted in Le Soleil’s series of articles — to follow suit.

Saint-Jean also noted that the goal behind these specialized courts is to make it easier for women to put their experience of an assault in a civil proceeding as a central component of their identity — instead of having to first go through a criminal court process. The sense that the criminal justice system is flawed in that way seems to be gaining traction nationally.

“When someone talks about rape in a criminal case, for women, the memories of what happened — and the freedom to speak about it — are there to be protected,” she said. “But when it comes to speaking out in a civil case, everything is suppressed. It’s almost like we’re double-speaking, and that needs to change.”

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