Sexual assault case training isn’t mandatory for judges — a bill is trying to change that
In February 2017, former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose introduced a bill to the House of Commons that would require federal judges in Canada to undergo training about sexual assault law.
Just three months later, federal politicians from across party lines praised Bill C-337 as it unanimously passed in the House.
Since then, the bill has languished in the Senate.
While the Judicial Accountability Through Sexual Assault Law Training Act has had broad support in the upper house, progress on it has been slow.
Earlier this year, Ambrose blamed a “group of old boys” in the Senate for setting up roadblocks to the bill, which will die if not approved by the time Parliament breaks for the summer on June 21.
Amendments to the bill
On June 3, the Senate proposed amendments to the bill, which Ambrose endorsed. Some senators had felt it necessary to address concerns that the proposed law could undermine judicial independence and create the perception of judicial bias in favour of victims.
The amendments would drop the bill’s requirement that all applicants for judicial posts undergo training in sexual assault law. Instead, all applicants would be required to commit to undergo continuing education in sexual assault law, which would be mandatory for successful applicants.
Another amendment would require that training courses be developed in consultation with any relevant groups, not just victims’ groups.
And a third would drop a requirement that the Canadian Judicial Council publicize the names of judges who hear sexual assault cases without having taken the training.
On a tight timeline
But there are still several steps left.
After the bill is studied by the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, it will undergo a third reading. If the amendments are passed, it will go back to the House, where MPs will vote on it again.
All of this needs to happen before June 21.
The Canadian Women’s Foundation has been advocating for Bill C-337 to be passed before the House rises. In May, it launched an “action alert,” calling on Canadians to send a letter to senators over the delay. More than 1,600 letters have been sent through the organization’s website.
“I urge you to prioritize Bill C-337 and bring it to a vote before the federal election, as well as ensure the training is grounded in lived experience and delivered by subject matter experts,” the pre-written letter reads. “It is long overdue and survivors of sexual violence cannot wait.”
How would the bill help?
Andrea Gunraj, who is the organization’s vice-president of public engagement, told Global News the purpose of the letter was not only to push for the bill but also the types of training needed.
“We really wanted to support the bill but also the idea that training should be done by people who are survivors of violence as well as experts, women’s organizations that work on these cases,” she explained.
Gunraj noted that there have been several recent cases in which judges have made inappropriate comments during trials.
“Judges have said things that really do seem to reproduce stereotypes and myths about gender, victims and survivors and what they are ‘responsible’ for.”
She noted that while these stereotypes are present throughout society, they are particularly harmful within the legal system.
“It can really create bias that stops a proper judgement around a trial and around the issues of sexual violence,” Gunraj said.
Ambrose herself has argued that last month’s ruling by the Supreme Court in the Cindy Gladue case demonstrates the need for her bill.
In that case, the top court ordered a new trial for a truck driver acquitted of killing Gladue, an Indigenous sex worker. It ruled that the justice system failed Gladue by allowing her sexual history to become an issue and suggested trial judges need to do more to counter prejudice against Indigenous women.
Ambrose also noted the case of a former Alberta judge who asked a victim why she hadn’t kept her knees together or sunk her bottom into a bathroom sink to avoid being raped.
More education, training needed
While Bill C-337 would be a step in the right direction, Gunraj said that several others are needed. For example, this bill focuses only on lawyers applying to become federal judges.
“It doesn’t necessarily apply to provincial judges or provincial courts,” she explained.
Most provinces don’t have such training mandated for judges.
Prince Edward Island became the first in March 2019, when it passed the Mandatory Sexual Assault Law Education Act.
The province’s rules lay out that judges should be educated on sexual assault law, principles of consent and related myths and stereotypes. The final draft of the bill, however, does not make it mandatory for judges to have completed the training before being appointed.
Gunraj also noted that training should be required not only for judges but across all legal professions, such as police officers.
“Not only do sexual assault cases not often make it to trial, there’s often very few law convictions — but it’s also one of the most under-reported crimes,” she said.
She noted that proper reform on the handling of sexual assault cases is needed throughout the legal spectrum in order to truly address the problem.
“It has to be something that happens all the way through the system, and training is a really important element,” Gunraj said.
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