Springing ahead

As we come to the end of a March that has been filled with damp, chilly weather and grey skies, after a winter that never really was, I decided to go looking for some good news stories in the world of violence against women. To my surprise, I found a few, so I’m sharing them with you.

An apology

Police services, generally, have been slow to publicly acknowledge their shortcomings in violence against women cases. Over the past few months, two police chiefs have moved the needle on this significantly.

Earlier this year, sexual assault charges were laid against five members of Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team relating to an incident that took place after a Hockey Canada gala in London, Ontario. The woman reported the incident in 2018, police closed their investigation in 2019, reopening it in 2022 after Hockey Canada settled a civil lawsuit brought by the woman. In early February of this year, after the criminal charges were laid, London Police Chief Thai Truong had this to say:

“My sincerest apology to the victim, to her family, for the amount of time that it has taken to reach this point. This should not take this long.”

Too little? Maybe, but still an important moment of acknowledging that a better job could have been done.

Stepping up in the Sault

Last October, Sault Ste. Marie’s Bobbie Halaert shot and killed his former partner, Angie Sweeney, then moved on to the home where his former wife and three children lived, where he shot and killed the children and shot and wounded his ex-wife, before killing himself. Police Chief Hugh Stevenson has stepped up to the plate not just to acknowledge that the police could have done more, but to announce an important pilot project.

In a February interview with CBC’s Katie Nicholson, Stephenson said:

“We did what we were supposed to do. We fell within the rules. But that’s where I think we need to think outside the Criminal Code and use more intuitive, proactive approaches to say ‘What can we do for this victim?’”

In March, he announced that, as a result of their review of the circumstances surrounding last October’s tragedy, the police service will implement an immediate pilot project to review every IPV call for service that does not result in an arrest. Enhanced training for dispatch and frontline members of the police service is also being developed, along with a routine review of calls for service to ensure they are being handled professionally and with empathy.

Courtroom support for survivors

Little has been done to create a trauma-informed space for survivors of gender-based violence in criminal or family courtrooms, but accommodations offered last year to a British Columbia woman to make it easier for her to testify in her family law case offer some hope for the future.

In this instance, the man had already pleaded guilty to assault in criminal court, and the two people were in family court to deal with financial and property matters. Initially, the woman was allowed to testify behind a screen – itself an accommodation — so she wouldn’t have to see her former partner, but when her lawyer told the judge after the first day of the trial that the process was still too distressing, the judge arranged to have the man placed in another room, where he watched the woman’s testimony by video.

Acknowledging that these accommodations were highly unusual, the judge also said:

“It is important that litigants feel that they can put their case forward, and she’s telling me that she’s having grave difficulties doing that, so then we need to find a way to address that. It has no impact on my findings at all.”

The Supreme Court gets it right

In a decision released on March 8th, International Women’s Day, the Supreme Court reinstated the convictions of two men in separate and unrelated sexual assault cases. The men had initially been found guilty at trial, but each of their convictions was overturned on appeal.

In both cases, the British Columbia Court of Appeal had supported the defence in its call for a rule to be created against trial judges relying on “common-sense assumptions” in sexual assault cases. In writing the decision for the Court, Justice Sheilah Martin said:

“No such change to the law is warranted, and I decline to recognize the rule against ungrounded common-sense assumptions as giving rise to an error of law. . . . There is no need to fashion a new rule of law against any assumption not supported by particular evidence in the record to strive for what existing rules already accomplish. Adopting [the proposed rule] would undercut the functional and flexible approach to appellate intervention and create mischief across the entire criminal law.”

Score four for the good guys as we celebrate the arrival of spring!

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