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The Criminal Justice Process and Survivors

There are many reasons why survivors of sexual assault ultimately don't report. Here, we break down some of the reasons why this is so common in the criminal justice system.

Generally speaking, all lawyers working in the criminal justice system, including crown attorneys, defense lawyers and judges simply want justice to be served. More so, they want to be able to do that without harming anyone. However, given the complex nature of the criminal justice system, this is not always possible and inevitably, sexual assault survivors will likely be affected by the lengthy reporting process.

Only about 1 in 10 (12%) sexual assaults that are reported lead to a criminal conviction (Stats Can). This number is alarmingly low. Not only does this discourage many people from coming forward, but it also reduces the trust that they have in the justice system. This plays a critical role in deciding whether or not they report. Individuals are dissuaded as they believe that their assault will not lead to a conviction. Going through the reporting and trial process is extremely traumatizing and with low conviction rates, survivors are far more reluctant to report to authorities. It is important for authorities to be cognizant of these low conviction rates and implement solutions to address these harms.

The legal definitions of assault can also be difficult to interpret and navigate. Often, many survivors may not believe that their experience would be one that is considered assault or one that courts would validate. Therefore, the survivors minimize the assault and their experience. The lack of clarity and transparency in what consent entails and the levels of assault are concepts that needs to be clarified for the general public. There must be better explanation around the fact that any form of unwanted touch can be considered assault and implied consent is not a legal defense. This will encourage people to report and come forward regarding their experiences.

Another reason people choose not to report is because of the long wait times that come with reporting and awaiting trial. Awaiting trial for a potential conviction means putting your life on hold. It means thinking about that one incident over and over for days, months or even years until you have the opportunity to go to court. This wait time impacts the survivor’s ability to live life normally, while anxiously awaiting their day in court. This prevents survivors from reporting because they are constantly living in a state of trauma and many may choose to simply try and forget about it instead of reliving it. COVID has also further delayed trial wait times making it even more difficult for survivors to report and wait for trial. If authorities were to navigate cases in the criminal justice system a little more efficiently, perhaps reporting would increase as wait times would decrease.

As time goes by, the memories of the incident also become blurry and details begin to fade. This leads lawyers to diminish the survivor’s credibility in court and deem them unreliable. Recounting assault experiences for survivors is very difficult and having to relay details to the court and members of the public can be very dehumanizing for them. Their sexual histories may be used against them, which prevents them from wanting to report and go through the process. Therefore, the misinterpretations and sexual myths that may occur in court are extremely harmful for the survivors and must be prevented at all costs.

Sources:
https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/54870-eng.htm
https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/trauma/p2.html

Written by: Shreeya Devnani

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