Why are Convictions so Difficult to Obtain in Sexual Assault Cases?

At best 0.3% of perpetrators are convicted of sexual assault and the rest walk away, University of Manitoba law Prof. Karen Busby said during a talk at Robson Hall on Sept. 12, 2018. Even more depressing is the fact that that proportion is dropping.

Busby said key changes were made to Canadian sexual assault law in 1983, 1987, 1992, 1996 and 1998. These reforms included: bringing clarity on offences against children, requiring consent to be contemporaneous and continuous, limiting the use of sexual history evidence and access to personal records, a complainant’s testimony does not need be corroborated, resistance on the part of the victim is unnecessary, and a new sexual exploitation offence appropriate for people with disabilities was created.

Proposed reforms currently before the Senate include: an unconscious person being unable to consent to sexual activity, restricting the use of victim criminal records in the possession of the accused’s lawyer, and how previous sexual history applications may be used.

Busby presented a study by Daly and Bohours that found the percentage of complaints that resulted in a conviction actually fell between 1970 and 2005. A study by Johnson in 2012 found that only 1 in 10 women sexually assaulted in Canada report the assault to police, and only 1 in 10 of those complaints will result in a conviction. These studies raised the question of whether 30 years of feminist-inspired law reform have had a discernable impact on the high attrition rate.

What we can do to turn things around? Seminar participants suggested: specialized training for judges and lawyers, having a sexual assault court or division, requiring judges to report decisions, the #MeToo movement, more research, restorative justice, shifting from criminal to civil court, and public prevention.

The lecture concluded with a video clip of Crown attorney Jill Witkin discussing promising practices to address sexual assault against adults in Canada. See Panel 5 at 56:50 minutes: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/victims-victimes/cal/video.html.

Powerpoint

Listen to podcasts from seminars in this series.

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