ILA for sexual assault survivors: an emerging best practice

As part of the commitments it made in its 2015 It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, Ontario’s provincial government rolled out a pilot project to provide free independent legal advice (ILA) to survivors of sexual assault in June 2016.

Administered by the Ministry of the Attorney General, the pilot is running until March 2018 in three communities: Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay.

Survivors of a sexual assault can access up to four hours of free ILA from private bar lawyers who have received specialized training to provide this advice, which can be provided through both in-person and telephone appointments.

In addition, women in Toronto can access the ILA through the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which provides legal representation, professional counselling and multilingual interpretation to women who have experienced abuse.

Survivors wishing to access ILA from the Schlifer Clinic can contact the Clinic at 416-323-9149. Those wishing to receive services from private bar lawyers can complete a voucher and submit it to the Ministry, which will then provide a list of available lawyers.

The privilege of listening

Working with the Schlifer Clinic, I am one of the lawyers providing ILA through this pilot. Listening to women talk about sexual assault can be overwhelming, but it is also a privilege to be trusted with such personal stories.

I have talked to women as young as 16 and women in their 70s and 80s. I have listened to women who were sexually assaulted a few days before calling and whose assaults took place as much as 50 years ago. I have met with women who are newcomers to Canada and whose families have lived here for generations; women who have post graduate degrees and professional jobs and women who left school when they were 14 years old. Women have told me about being sexually assaulted by strangers, coaches, religious leaders, family members, boyfriends, babysitters and famous men. I have heard stories about childhood sexual abuse, pornography, date rape, stranger assault, sex trafficking.

Every time I think I have heard every story I could possibly hear, I hear one I could never have imagined.

Some women come with pages of neatly typed and tabbed notes; others struggle to get the words out. Some already know quite a lot about the options available to them; others know nothing. Some have had counselling; some have told nobody before telling me.

Some of what I have heard has shocked and shaken me but, sadly, most of it has not. While the details are different, the stories are all too familiar.

Common themes

After 19 months of listening and advising, I can say that I have found some common themes in what women have to say.

Most women want to be reassured that what happened to them was wrong and that they are not to blame for it. Many simply want their assailant to understand that what he did caused harm. They want him to apologize, to learn and to not do it again. I have been moved by how many women, still struggling to deal with the trauma of what has been done to them, are focused on making sure their assailant does not hurt other women.

A lot of the women I meet with are angry: with their assailant, of course, but also with the systems that allow sexual violence to continue, the parent who did not believe them, the friend who told them they should not have had so much to drink or worn such a short skirt, the colleague who tells them it is time to get over it and move on.

Some women want to see their assailant punished; but most do not. Most want to stop feeling bad about themselves, to stop hurting, to not be afraid, to be restored to whomever they were before the sexual assault happened.

Few want to report to the police or go through the rigours of a criminal trial.

So little to offer

Often, I feel that what I have to offer is so little in comparison to what they have shared with me. I explain how the criminal process works, how to make an application to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, where to lodge a complaint against a professional who has committed a sexual assault. I talk about the pros and cons of each legal option we discuss. I encourage women to get counselling. We talk about where she wants to be one, two and five years from now.

I am honest: I tell every woman that there is no law that can undo what has happened to her; that, at best, one or more options may help her move on with her life, but that sexual assault will always be a part of who she is.

And, little as this seems to be to me, it is often what is needed. Women are generous in their thanks for the advice they have received. They tell me that, for the first time, they understand it is not their fault that they were sexually assaulted. They tell me that the appointment has reminded them that they have a voice.

Some of them get back in touch a month or several months after we have spoken to let me know what has (or has not) happened for them. Some want a second or third or fourth appointment as they slowly journey through their decision-making process.

It is about more than legal advice

Yes, this is a program to provide legal advice, but I realized early on it is much more than that. While the legal advice is invaluable to any survivor who decides to engage with a legal system about her sexual assault, these sessions also provide an opportunity to validate women’s experiences of sexual violence; a space where they can reclaim their voice and power; where they can begin to see that there is the possibility of a life for them that is not just about having been sexually assaulted.

This pilot has the potential to revolutionize the aftermath of sexual violence for women in Ontario. It needs to become a permanent program, expanded to cover women throughout the province. The Schlifer Clinic model is a positive one, because it ensures women receive legal advice from lawyers with a background in sexual violence advocacy and also have access to professional counselling. A permanent program should build on this model to incorporate community and hospital based sexual assault centres.

As International Women’s Day approaches in just over a month, let’s call on the government to make this pilot project a permanent and province-wide program.

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