Justice system must 'change at its roots' for domestic and sexual violence, experts say

Experts say victims of domestic and sexual violence who have proper support and accompaniment are more likely to go through with the complaint process. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)
Experts say victims of domestic and sexual violence who have proper support and accompaniment are more likely to go through with the complaint process. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This article contains details of abuse.

Cassandre spent 12 years in a relationship full of physical and psychological abuse without filing a complaint to police, worried she wouldn't be taken seriously.

"If only you knew how many times I considered reporting the violence, but didn't out of fear it would make it worse," she said at a news conference about the 12 days of action against domestic violence — which remembers the victims of Montreal's Polytechnique shooting — Wednesday.

After an incident that made her fear for her and her son's lives last February, she met with two female police officers who accompanied her through the justice system with regular check-ins and gave her updates on her case.

Cassandre, whose identity is protected as a victim of domestic abuse, says she left that first meeting feeling reassured, supported and with several emergency phone numbers and resources — all of which motivated her to continue the complaint process.

"Thanks to them I decided to take this to the end, meaning going to court against this man," Cassandre said. "I finally see the light at the end of this awful ordeal."

A new report looking into gender-based violence in Quebec says more victims of violence need that kind of support and for that to happen, the justice system has to change at its roots.

The report showed that women who had proper support were more likely to go through the criminal processes.

But not every complainant has the same experience as Cassandre.

'Everybody thinks the system could do much better'

A group of academics and community organizations followed 52 women who experienced violence in 10 regions of Quebec over six years. Most of the women said the legal proceedings were either too intimidating, complicated or lengthy for them to get real justice.

None of the women said they would recommend others go through the complaint process.

Indigenous, racialized, LGBTQ+, disabled and immigrant women were even less likely to report gender-based violence or go through the legal process.

What surprised the researchers is that police, lawyers, social workers and judges also acknowledged the justice system's shortcomings.

"No matter the perspective from where you look at it … Everybody thinks that the system could do much better," said Rachel Gagnon, the co-lead researcher of the report and professor of judicial scientists at Université du Québec à Montréal.

Gagnon said one factor making domestic and sexual violence trials difficult for complainants is they are treated as normal witnesses and must live through having their traumatic experiences repeatedly dissected.

She says complainants are also often left in the dark as to the status of the proceedings.

For example, lawyers may make plea bargains — which the complainant isn't informed about — thinking they are sparing the complainant from testifying, even if they wanted to, said Gagnon.

"If you decide what's good for her, you're not doing her a service and you're not doing justice service because you will have someone disappointed and bitter," she said.

Dave St-Amant/CBC
Dave St-Amant/CBC

Complainants "want to be better listened to [and believed]," said Gagnon.

Sophie Gagnon, the executive director of the legal clinic Juripop, says she has seen a big difference in how complainants who benefit from professionals dedicated to their interests — like lawyers, social workers and criminologists — view the justice system.

Because rights like due process, remaining silent and presumption of innocence are entrenched in the Constitution, trials can be "adversarial," she said.

The criminal courts also operate separately from family and civil courts with little co-ordination, sometimes pitting a victim in a criminal case against her alleged assailant in a custody case or divorce hearing.

"Some rules will not and cannot change in a democracy. I think we have to accept that although the system is flawed, we can definitely improve it," she said.

"It will remain, I believe, a difficult process for victims."

Special tribunals offer hope

Quebec launched a pilot project, special tribunals for domestic and sexual violence in 10 regions, with the goal of deploying them across the province and making them permanent by November 2026.

Training on the realities of victims of sexual and domestic violence is offered to any actor likely to intervene, said Justice Ministry spokesperson Cathy Chenard, along with "safe spaces for victims" in courthouses.

"One of the objectives is to avoid having the victim meet the alleged aggressor during his visits to the court as much as possible," she said.

Experts are hopeful these courts will make the process easier for complainants and put their needs at the heart of gender-based violence trials.

"But this being said, one thing is still a bit sad, the fact that those tribunals are a demonstration that maybe there is a real difficulty for the system to truly adapt," said Rachel Gagnon.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. The Montreal Sexual Assault Centre (MSAC), Regroupement québécois des centres d'aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel (RQCALACS) and Crime Victims Assistance Centres (CAVAC) are available in Montreal and across Quebec. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.