While hundreds gathered at Grand Parade to protest a Nova Scotia judge’s comments that “clearly, a drunk can consent,” the province quietly announced several new initiatives it says will support survivors of sexual assault as they navigate through the justice system.
The new services include the hiring of two special prosecutors to handle sexual assault cases, as well as opening a new domestic violence court in Halifax. The Liberal government will also look at providing free, independent legal advice for those who’ve experienced sexual violence.
Free legal advice for victims of sexual assault is something the government of Ontario started to provide last year. Nova Scotia will be asking the federal government for funding to help set up a similar program in this province.
In a news release announcing the changes, Justice minister Diana Whalen said the province has already invested $6 million into Nova Scotia’s first Sexual Violence Strategy, “but there is more work to do.”
“What I have heard clearly from women and support groups is that we need to provide better supports for victims of sexual and domestic violence in the criminal justice system,” writes Whalen.
The province also promised to provide
“Sexual assault complaints must be treated fairly and effectively, with sensitivity, respect and compassion in our system,” writes the justice minister. “Nobody should feel deterred from coming forward with a complaint.”
The initiatives were announced the same afternoon that hundreds of protesters (and opposition MLAs from the NDP and Progressive Conservatives) gathered to protest the justice system’s handling of assault cases in the wake of Bassam Al-Rawi’s not-guilty verdict.
Judge Gregory Lenehan acquitted the taxi driver last week, stating in his oral decision that the Crown failed to offer satisfactory evidence that consent had not been given. The judgment was made in spite of the passenger’s blood alcohol being three times the legal limit, and her being unconscious when she was discovered by police in the back of Al-Rawi's cab.
The judge's remarks have sparked outrage across the country, and prompted calls for a formal inquiry into his conduct.
So far, Whalen hasn't responded to requests for comment about Lenehan's decision. On Tuesday, premier Stephen McNeil finally addressed the biggest news story in the province, telling TC Media in an interview that the decision made him “mad, quite frankly, with the system.”
The Crown also announced on Tuesday that it has filed an appeal against Lenehan’s decision on several grounds, including that the judge engaged in speculation about the issue of consent “rather than drawing inferences from the facts proven in the evidence.”