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Chief Justice’s comments on sexual assault litigation reflect limits of justice system: Mochama

For some, McLachlin’s statement was a warning to sexual assault victims that they should lower their expectations.I don’t see it that way, writes Vicky Mochama.

In a recent speech, Beverley McLachlin said &quotNo one has a right to a particular verdict" in sexual assault trials, according to reports.

FRED CHARTRAND / The Canadian Press

In a recent speech, Beverley McLachlin said "No one has a right to a particular verdict" in sexual assault trials, according to reports.

Over the weekend, Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin jumped into the fray, adding her voice to the conversation about sexual assault litigation.

“Complainants and witnesses need to understand what is required of them in a trial and what they can realistically expect from it,” the Globe and Mail reported she said during an acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award from the Crminial Lawyers’ Association in Toronto. “No one has a right to a particular verdict but only to a fair trial on the evidence.”

For some, McLachlin’s statement was a warning to sexual assault victims that they should lower their expectations.

I don’t see it that way. It seems to be an honest comment about how the criminal justice system works.

In the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, a number of changes were made to reflect a turning of the tide. From a lack of resources to the administrative ways that police place sexual assault cases on the backburner, that case revealed the gaps in the justice system.

Some have been addressed.

In Ontario, sexual assault complainants are eligible to receive up to four hours of free legal counsel in a pilot project launched last year that is set to expire in March 2018. Following Globe and Mail reporting that police dismissed one-fifth of sexual assaults as “unfounded,” the Ontario Provincial Police is changing how it will investigate and procedurally engage in sexual assault complaints.

The value of other changes remains to be seen.

A private member’s bill currently awaiting approval from the Senate would require federal judges to receive training on sexual assault. Proposed by then-MP Rona Ambrose in response to a judge (now resigned) who asked why a complainant hadn’t closed her knees, the bill attempts to deal with ignorance on the bench. However, as the Canadian Bar Association notes, it “would also not address training for provincial or territorial judges, where the bulk of sexual assault trials take place.”

Clearly, reform is needed, but it is complex and the solutions myriad.

The attention on the alleged predatory behaviours of people like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback and Kevin Spacey spurred the #MeToo conversation. Something feels different. The revelations have inspired so many people to expose the predators in their midst — in kitchens, offices, comedy clubs and so on.

Yet the law and especially the institutions within it are often slow to respond to cultural changes.

McLachlin’s comments underscore the tension between what it means to believe survivors and what justice within the legal systems looks like.

Rather than the police marking cases as unfounded or judges jailing women like Angela Cardinal who refuse to testify to their sexual assault, believing survivors requires a fundamental shift in the justice system: one that listens to them.

Everyone has a right to be heard. Still, while sexual assault continues to be handled differently at every level of the justice system, what McLachlin said remains true: no one has a right to a verdict.

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