In March, the Ontarian government announced plans to launch a $2.8 million pilot program which would provide victims of sexual assault the ability to get consultations with lawyers at no cost to themselves. This program is a first for Canada, and it covers sexual assault victims from Toronto, Thunder Bay and Ottawa.
Under the pilot, victims will be able to talk to sexual assault lawyers in Toronto and the other cities, for four hours, to get free legal advice. Expert lawyers an help you properly in your case.
This is not the same as free representation in court - but it is still an incredibly valuable offer - something that will help those women to make informed decisions about how to proceed with their case. They will be able to find out what their options are, and what services they could take. They will then, at the end of the program, they can sit down and think about what they want to do next.
The pilot has been well received, but there are some people who are calling for more - hoping that sexual assualt victims will be able to get equal status with defendants in criminal trials. That is something that is a federal matter, however, and that would require a change to common law that has stood for centuries.
The scheme aims to inform and empower sexual assault claimants in Toronto, so that they can make the best choice for themselves. They hope to do this without having to "upend the justice system".
Amanda Dale, the Executive Director of the Barbra Schlifer Clinic, which works with domestic and sexual assault survivors, will be hosting the Toronto pilot. Dale said that at this stage they were hoping to level the playing field, and give claimants the chance to understand the process clearly. They hope to help women by giving them the support that they need to navigate the complex reality of the criminal system.
The data collected through these test consultations will, hopefully, help to launch a province-wide scheme which will be run as a part of the "It's Never Okay" strategy, which is organised by Premier Kathleen Wynne. This effort was inspired by the discussions surrounding Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, and the sexual assault allegations that they were facing. Sexual assault claimants face some difficult challenges, as were highlighted by those high profile cases. This new scheme is a small step towards improving the lot of claimants.