The Nova Scotia government will hire two special prosecutors to handle sexual assault cases, a move the justice minister said Tuesday would help protect women, children and other victims navigating the province's criminal justice system.
The announcement came as the Public Prosecution Service announced it would appeal the acquittal of Halifax cab driver Bassam Al-Rawi on a charge of sexually assaulting an intoxicated female passenger.
The ruling has made national headlines and galvanized members of the public and advocates for sex assault victims.
"Sexual assault complaints must be treated fairly and effectively, with sensitivity, respect and compassion in our system," Justice Minister Diana Whalen said in a news release.
"Nobody should feel deterred from coming forward with a complaint."
Specialized training, free advice
The province said it also hopes to work with the federal government to provide free, independent legal advice for victims of sexual assault. Crown attorneys would also be provided with specialized training.
Other initiatives outlined in the news release include opening a new domestic violence court in Halifax and ensuring "police have the appropriate capability to investigate sexual assaults" through audits.
Sarah Granke, co-ordinator of the province's sexual violence prevention and response strategy, told a legislature committee Tuesday that the outcry over Al-Rawi's acquittal is proof that attitudes are changing.
Granke said last week's verdict didn't come as a shock.
"I wouldn't say that I was surprised," said Granke. "I was angry. I was sad … because this is symbolic of a wider societal issue."
Encouraged by public response
But Granke, who was hired in June 2015 to co-ordinate the province's $6-million sexual violence strategy, also said she was impressed by the way people have reacted.
Hundreds of protesters gathered Tuesday in Halifax to decry the ruling by Judge Gregory Lenehan. His decision to acquit Al-Rawi — and the judge's comments that "clearly a drunk can consent" — have come under fire.
"What heart-warmed me is the public outcry, is the community mobilization around this issue," said Granke.
Al-Rawi was charged after a police officer found a 26-year-old, partly clothed woman in the back of his cab in May 2015. Al-Rawi had her urine-soaked underwear in his hands and test results later found her DNA on his upper lip, but not on his hands or his genitals.
The police officer said Al-Rawi's pants were halfway down his buttocks and his zipper was undone when he left the vehicle.
The woman testified during a two-day trial she recalled little from that night, and Lenehan ruled the Crown failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman had not consented.
'We are in a better place'
Stephanie MacInnis-Langley, executive director of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, also appeared Tuesday before the legislature's community services committee.
She said some good might come from the Lenehan's controversial ruling given how the public has reacted and the fact people are speaking out more against the violence women face.
"We are in a better place than we were in 2015 or 2016 because the discussions are on the table and they're at a national table and we have a prime minister, in fact, who stood on the national stage and spoke to the issue of sexual violence," she said.
However MacInnis-Langley said she was worried the acquittal might prevent some victims from seeking justice in the courts.
"I think it does deter some people from coming forward," she told provincial politicians. "My hope is that it will spark enough conversation that it will encourage victims.
"That ... the more we support one another and the more we offer supports to victims of sexual violence, that they will have a safety net and they will feel safe in coming forward."