At the Dawn of a Judicial Revolution? #MeToo

By Martine Letarte

What has the #MeToo movement concretely changed for victims of sexual assault in the justice system? Not much, we want to answer after the acquittals of Gilbert Rozon and Éric Salvail. However, there has been a real evolution in recent years, and all signs point to the notion that many changes are still to come.

The #metoo movement, which encourages victims to speak out publicly to denounce their attackers, took on a global dimension in 2017 with the case of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood magnate denounced by dozens of women. The businessman was sentenced in 2019 to 23 years in prison for the sexual assault of six women. In Quebec, #MeToo resurfaced in July 2020 with denunciations targeting several actors in the artistic community.

Why denounce on social media rather than turn to the justice system? The legal process is often long, complex and difficult for the victims, with no guarantee of conviction of the accused, due to lack of evidence. Only 5% of sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only three out of 1,000 sexual assault complaints result in a conviction.

Morals Trial

Even today, stereotypes are tough on victims. Many are afraid of not being believed or that their morals will be put on trial. The Committee of Experts on Support for Victims of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, created to restore trust, tabled its report in December 2020 and tackles precisely this issue.

While police officers decide about one in five times not to pursue a complaint of sexual assault, the report says, several myths and unconscious biases may influence their decisions. For example, they would be more likely to pursue the complaint if the victim indicated during the interrogation that she physically resisted or that she had not consumed alcohol. The report therefore recommends in particular that sex crime files not be closed at the police investigation stage.

Code of Conduct

In court, it is prohibited to present evidence relating to sexual history with a person other than the accused, nor evidence of sexual reputation aimed at the credibility of the complainant, since the 1983 reform and the Sexual Offenses Act. However, several complainants are still being asked questions about their sex life. This was the case of Annick Charrette, the complainant in the Gilbert Rozon trial; Judge Mélanie Hébert repeatedly warned lawyers against stereotypes in matters of sexual assault.

“The messages from the courts have been very clear for several years, namely that stereotypes and preconceived ideas must be excluded from any judicial process, and any attempt to do so must be singled out and even punished,” says Audrey Roy-Cloutier, spokesperson for the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DPCP).

The report recommends developing, in partnership with relevant judicial actors, a code of conduct for the questioning and cross-examination of victims. To deconstruct the myth of the “perfect victim” who must remember everything and have acted in a certain way following the attack, the report also recommends consolidating and extending to the whole province the teams of prosecutors specializing in sex crimes.

Best Accompaniment

The Committee of Experts also relies on better psychosocial and legal support for victims, whether they decide to file a complaint or not. Already, since 2019, the directives of the DPCP mention that victims of sexual crimes must be consulted by the investigator and the psycho-socio-judicial worker of the Center for Assistance to Victims of Criminal Acts (CAVAC) before the authorization of a prosecution by the prosecutor.

“This meeting is important so that visual contact is made and that the victim therefore feels supported, that she feels that she is no longer alone with her story and that we can demystify the judicial system and direct the victim to other resources, if necessary,” explains Roy-Cloutier.

Beyond Doubt

Beyond support, the Rozon and Salvail trials have highlighted the difficulty of demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused in cases of sexual assault based on contradictory testimonies.

However, the Committee’s report does not call this principle into question. “Our justice system is based on the presumption of innocence, which means that we prefer, as a society, to see a guilty person exonerated than the reverse,” says Roy-Cloutier.

She points out that with the current rules, there are trials that end with guilty verdicts when there are contradictory versions. “It’s not insurmountable,” says Roy-Cloutier.

Help the Abusers

Mélanie Lemay, co-founder of le mouvement Québec contre les violences sexuelles (the Quebec Movement Against Sexual Violence), claims to have had to mime her sexual assault when filing her complaint with the police. The prosecutor closed his case without filing charges. The young woman today salutes the work of the Committee of Experts, but remains convinced that the justice system is a lifesaver for a minority of cases, and cannot solve everything.

“I think of a case of young men who committed a gang rape and who were raped by fellow prisoners in prison,” she says. “Is this violence within the walls of the penitentiary consistent with my desire to reduce sexual assault? No. Will these young people come out of prison having learned something constructive? I doubt it. They’ll come out angry and I wouldn’t want to get in their way.”

This activist does not believe in the myth of the single victim. “The attackers have a way of getting in touch with others, of gaining power over them. It is deeply rooted in them. They will have several victims”, believes Lemay, who is particularly worried about the lack of access to rehabilitation resources.

The report of the Committee of Experts recommends that resources for abusers be available and accessible throughout Quebec. “We have expertise in Quebec in terms of therapies that have a very high success rate in reducing the risk of recurrence,” says Lemay. “They need to be more accessible. I also believe that a big part of the answer lies in education. We will have to follow the evolution of the file closely, but I believe that we are at the dawn of a revolution.”

Free and confidential information line for victims who are considering filing a complaint: 1-877-547-DPCP (3727)

French version available on the Reflet de Société website February 12th, 2021

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