Better court support

By Jenn Watt

After the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial came down on Thursday a former journalism professor of mine tweeted something worth remembering.

“Let’s hope today’s commentators on the #Ghomeshi verdicts clearly understand the sometimes yawning gap between ‘not guilty’ and innocent” Larry Cornies tweeted.

Ghomeshi was acquitted on March 24 of the five charges against him largely because the stories told by the three complainants changed over time. Given there was no additional evidence to the alleged assaults the case rested on the women being deemed credible witnesses and Ghomeshi’s legal team effectively destroyed their reliability in the eyes of Justice William Horkins.

“My conclusion that the evidence in this case raises a reasonable doubt is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened. At the end of this trial a reasonable doubt exists because it is impossible to determine with any acceptable degree of certainty or comfort what is true and what is false” he wrote in his decision.

The lessons learned from the intense media spotlight have practical implications for any victim of sexual assault in Canada. The “yawning gap” between a story standing up to court scrutiny and being truthful seems in this case to have been made larger by a lack of guidance for the women in navigating the system.

“Were I ever to make another statement in the future I wouldn’t walk into the police station and just do it. I would consult a lawyer because this is going to be the statement relied upon in trial” the first woman to testify told Chatelaine Magazine.

While police advise those arrested that what they say may be used against them in court this witness told the magazine that same statement should be read to complainants too.

In recent media interviews another complainant Lucy DeCoutere similarly expressed confusion around the process. Despite having her own lawyer she says she was still unprepared for how the mechanisms of the courts would work.

These are not new sentiments.

Our local MPP Laurie Scott put forward the motion that created the Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment after the Ghomeshi allegations were made public in 2014. Several of the recommendations from that committee address this disconnect that leaves sexual assault survivors to fend for themselves while also publicly re-living their trauma.

In particular the committee called on the government to “explore creating a program where sexual assault survivors are assigned a non-legal advocate to assist them throughout the entire court process providing them with information advice and emotional support.”

In a statement released Thursday Scott noted only a small percentage of victims come forward and calling for improvements to the justice system.

Those changes can’t come soon enough. In order for survivors to feel confident in our justice system we must have a system that supports them from beginning to end.