French-speaking Quebec launches special court for sexual assault

Image copyright PA

A new special court set up to deal with allegations of sexual assault in Quebec has been launched in the French-speaking Canadian province.

It came after a series of high-profile sexual assault cases, including the recent allegations against ousted Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly and comedian Louis CK.

It will be open to victims of violence – including sexual assault, and domestic abuse.

The court uses French, in order to lower the level of stress on the victims.

It was announced last year as part of a series of measures intended to improve the justice system, notably in the area of sexual assault.

In Quebec, victims of violence must be in a state of psychological distress to complain in court.

In the special court, however, the victim will not have to prove that they are in a state of psychological distress.

Image copyright PA Image caption The language issue is less of a problem in English-speaking Canada

The defence will also not be allowed to question the victim at the time of their complaint.

Those who cannot make it to the special court – because of distance or a language issue – will be able to report their case to a civil prosecutor, who will then take over.

The court can still decide to charge those who cannot be at the special court, but only on those who consent.

Special measures will also be placed on criminal proceedings when the process requires “uncertainty or temporary absence”.

The bill, first passed by the government in 2017, has had to pass several revisions since then.

Sex assault

In the United States and elsewhere, the “he said, she said” narrative has come under increased scrutiny following a series of high-profile cases involving the #MeToo movement.

Speaking to AFP news agency, Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee – who is also the first woman in the provincial cabinet – said the special court is meant to “decriminalise” sex assault cases.

“The presumption of innocence is important for the defence, but this bill creates certainty that the right of the victims to be heard in court as well.”

Ms Vallee said one of the top reasons given by victims for not wanting to make a complaint in the past was because of the trauma they would have gone through at the time.

“Since the bill was introduced, we have heard from victims who didn’t speak out because of the trauma,” she said.

Quebec’s Liberal government said at the time that the special court was one part of an overall approach aimed at improving the justice system in the province.

What do others think?

Prof Graeme Rosen, an expert in sexual assault law at the University of Ottawa, said the new court would give victims a fair hearing.

“A judge can now offer an extensive record of the criminal justice system’s failure to protect them when other ways of saying no were not exercised,” he told BBC News.

“And it means that, rather than being held responsible for the sins of the system they belong to, a defendant may be held accountable for not respecting a victim’s wish to maintain a state of psychological disturbance that results in not testifying.”

Prof Vallee said the special court would not be used to “convince victims not to come forward”, but to be more accepting of sexual assault victims.

In contrast, reports that Ms Vallee will recommend that such cases should be tried in English in order to make it easier for sexual assault victims to testify in French has come under criticism.

Mark Johnson, director of the University of Toronto’s Concordia Sexual Assault Centre, told CBC news that this was a matter of political correctness.

“Being held responsible for the sins of a system that didn’t care for them doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Judge Vallee, however, said it was not just French-speakers who wanted to be part of the special court.

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