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Testifying at Sexual Assault Trials

When a sexual assault victim is asked to testify in court, the process can be very overwhelming and re-traumatizing.

Sexual Assault is far more common than many of us can imagine. A study from 2019* shows that sexual assault had the lowest rate of reporting of any crime, with only 6% of incidents having been brought to the attention of police. Another study** shows that about 30% of all Canadian women have been sexually assaulted outside of an intimate relationships at least once.

The discrepancy between the numbers is appalling. It’s well known that many women who experience sexual assault do not report the crimes because of the lack of confidence they have in our justice system. However, those who do choose to report and go through all the legal processes have frequently experienced the criminal justice system as an environment that re-traumatizes them. While there has been a significant positive shift in understanding how traumatic experiences such as assault impact a person’s life, there still needs to be a shift in the way we address and approach these situations.

When a sexual assault case goes to court, the victim is usually asked to testify. This process can be very overwhelming, as the victim is being asked to relive a painful memory. There are two main people who will question the victim in this process. There is the defense attorney, who represents the accused, and there is the crown attorney, who represents the state. In this situation, when you are testifying, the crown attorney may directly examine you and the defense may cross examine you. The cross examination tends to be the hardest as the attorney may ask you questions that you have been trying to forget and often, this tends to discredit your version of how the events unfolded. Trivial details or facts can be misinterpreted and twisted in a way that completely disregards your feelings and the reality of the situation.

On one hand, discussions of sexual assault and the seriousness of the crime are being discussed in court rooms which indicates a step forward in addressing gender-based violence. However, if cases don’t succeed or the accused gets away, the injustice that comes afterwards for the victim is extremely difficult. The huge lack of justice becomes evident for sexual assault survivors and because of the lack of support, many women may not come forward. Improperly decided cases are what contribute to the ongoing deficiencies in the justice system.

Society at large does not always understand reactions women have to sexual assault experiences. Unfortunately, these misunderstandings persist in the justice system and contribute to discounting experiences. One of the most effective ways to address these issues includes moving towards a trauma-informed criminal justice system. Essentially, this means understanding and considering how the brain processes trauma and memory loss when it comes to painful memories (see our blog post How the Brain is Affected During Trauma). This could potentially allow for more impartial decision making, more informed understandings of sexual assault, and a stronger understanding of how the brain reacts in situations like these. This could also aid those in the criminal justice system to avoid discrediting future events.

In order for women to report more, we need to make sure they feel confident they are being heard and their voices will not be ignored. While the criminal justice system has come a long way in rejecting certain defenses such as “implied consent” in court (e.g. the case of R. v. Ewanchuck), more needs to be done in society to make sure survivors are acknowledged and understood.


Written by: Shreeya Devnani

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