Pilot project offers victims of sexual violence access to free legal advice

Victims of sexual violence will have access to at least four hours of free legal advice through a $700,000 pilot project launched in central Alberta Wednesday.

The advice could range from whether it's too late to file a civil claim to how a criminal case might unfold in the courts.

"This project is rooted in providing choice and shifting power back to the survivors," said Toni Sinclair, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Edmonton, which is running the program.

"Maybe nothing comes from the legal advice session. But maybe the survivors walk away feeling like, 'Finally, I know what some of my options are, and I can make the best decision based on where I'm at and what will help me to move forward.'"

Only a fraction of victims report a sexual assault to police and an even smaller amount of those reports will lead to charges, Sinclair said.

The incidence of sexual violence is even higher for people from marginalized populations and those who have been incarcerated, she said.

"It was this time last year when one of our Indigenous women who attends many of our programs told us about her sexual victimization. And when one of our volunteers asked if she would report it, she said, 'Obviously, I'm not going to. I'm Indigenous. No one's going to believe me.'

"I mean that's devastating but it speaks to the need.

"Marginalized individuals are over-represented as survivors of sexual violence, and they're are also extremely under-represented when accessing legal services."

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The program will operate as a three-year pilot, funded through $700,000 from the Ministry for the Status of Women. The ministry says tackling violence against women and girls is one of its priorities.

Minister Danielle Larivee said people might have questions about how to pursue a civil claim, or they might not know about the human rights complaint process.

"For most people, those are all foreign terms and foreign systems that they've not had to engage with," she said.

"Many survivors don't report sexual violence incidents because they think that they'll be dismissed or re-traumatized or  they just don't know how to navigate through all those pieces. So this program will help give them a better understanding of their legal options."

The program is being rolled out in municipalities served by the Elizabeth Fry Society, including Edmonton, Red Deer, Stony Plain, Morinville, St. Albert, Sherwood Park, Fort Saskatchewan, Ponoka, Camrose, Wetaskiwin, and several Indigenous communities.

Twenty-two lawyers have been trained to work on the pilot, including those with backgrounds in civil, criminal, and Indigenous law. They've all gone through training on how to work with victims of trauma.

Marginalized individuals are over-represented as survivors of sexual violence and ... under-represented when accessing legal services -Toni Sinclair, Elizabeth Fy Society

Lawyer Kimberley Hirsch signed up for the work after seeing a university roommate struggle with the justice system after a sexual assault.

She knows conviction rates for sexual assaults are low, and that — even with guidance — the system is hard for survivors.

"They come in and they have what seems to be a great case, but then you look at the system and you're like, 'Well, you're going to have to tell your story 10 different times and the way that people ask you questions is going to be traumatic ... and then you know the chances of your perpetrator actually getting charged and then getting convicted are so small.'

"So the frustration is definitely there for that."