An advocate for sexual assault survivors says she welcomes plans by the Nova Scotia government to strengthen supports, but hopes consultation will play a big role in any changes.
The mandate letter for Justice Minister Brad Johns calls for him to, among other things, amend the Victims' Rights and Services Act to entitle survivors to be treated with respect when testifying about sexual violence and enshrining their right to legal representation.
Joanne Kerrigan, interim executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, said the act already calls for victims of crime to be treated with courtesy, compassion and dignity.
"Strengthening language for sexual assault victims, specifically, is a good step forward that will be most successful with financial and practical support for community partners that support survivors," Kerrigan told CBC News in an email.
"Consulting with survivors and advocates on what specifically 'respect' looks like when testifying is crucial, and will require much more than a policy."
Addressing concerns about intimidation
It's part of a broader effort Kerrigan said needs to include systemic change, education, policy, monitoring, evaluation and collaboration at the police and court levels.
In an interview, Johns said consultation with a variety of partners will play a key role in the government's efforts, which includes building on work by the previous government.
Johns said one of his priorities is to make sure survivors don't feel intimidated and are as comfortable as possible when they attend court.
"I think in the past one of the things that's happened is people are afraid to come forward because they think it's going to be a long, hard road — which it is — but that nothing is going to happen in the end," he said.
"And I think we need to make sure that any victims that come forward are comfortable doing that and feel that they're going to end up with a result that's just at the end, that it's not just going to be a waste of their time to do it, that they feel confident in the system."
A need for a variety of supports
Among other potential supports, Kerrigan said survivors identify needs such as community-based advocacy and accompaniment, court/witness protection, information on testimonial aids and how to access them, and legal information and context-specific legal advice.
"We also hear from service providers (and survivors as well) that there needs to be accountability in follow-through and implementation of trauma-informed practice and policies, along with training for legal counsel and judges on: avoiding myths and stereotypes that revictimize and retraumatize survivors, the neurobiology of trauma and how this impacts memory recall and collaboration with survivors and community agencies to ensure a survivor-centered approach and ultimately more successful justice outcomes," she said.
As is the case with all members of the new Tory cabinet, Johns has 90 days to produce a timeline for completing the tasks in his mandate letter.
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