Workplace sexual harassment victims in N.B. get free legal advice under new program

Amber Chisholm, the associate director at the Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick, says workplaces are responsible for protecting employees from sexual harassment. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)
Amber Chisholm, the associate director at the Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick, says workplaces are responsible for protecting employees from sexual harassment. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)

Anyone experiencing workplace sexual harassment in New Brunswick will now have access to a free legal consultation.

The new program launched Wednesday is for anyone 16 or older who has experienced some form of sexual harassment at work and wants to learn about their legal options.

Amber Chisholm, associate director at the non-profit Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick, said this is the first service of its kind in New Brunswick.

"There's never been a referral service where people can call and be given the name of a specific lawyer to meet with on their particular issue."

The workplace is responsible for protecting the employee from sexual harassment regardless of who is responsible, Chisholm said.

"It does not matter that it's coming from a contractor who's doing your deliveries or from a client that you're having to meet with, or from a patron at the bar you're working from," she said. "You have the right to work in an environment free of harassment."

How it will work

The Workplace Sexual Harassment Lawyer Referral Program provides a list of participating lawyers, and a voucher to cover the two-hour session.

People can start by filling out a form on Safer Places N.B. website or calling the referral line. Safer Places is a collaboration with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission and is funded by the federal government.

The first step is a screening to determine if the person is eligible for the service. If they're under the age of 16, a guardian may be able to access the service on their behalf, Chisholm said.

The person will receive a list of lawyers to choose from. At the session, the lawyer will review their situation and explore legal options and possible outcomes.

Chisholm said the lawyer would be able to advise on civil and criminal options and steps the person can take internally at work or with the Human Rights Commission.

Submitted by Marc-Alain Mallet
Submitted by Marc-Alain Mallet

The lawyer can also help people understand laws that protects them from retaliation or steps to take if retaliation does happen, Chisholm said.

If the person decides to go ahead with a legal complaint after getting free advice, they have to pay for a lawyer as the program only covers consultation and advice. The lawyers who give this advice can choose take on the case, but it wouldn't be covered by the voucher.

Lawyers will receive training

Chisholm said the program has received expression of interest from 25 lawyers, and nine have officially registered.

Each lawyer will get legal training specific to workplace sexual harassment, as well as a training module provided by Sexual Violence N.B. dealing specifically with how to properly serve people who have gone through trauma.

According to the Safer Places N.B. website, workplace sexual harassment could come in the form of making passes, soliciting sexual favours, questions about sexual activities or sexual touching. It can also be "not about sexual interest at all," the website says.

"Often, it involves sexist attitudes, negative assumptions, hostility, rejection, bullying and/or diminishment based on a person's sex, gender and sexual orientation," the website says.

In 2019 the province amended Occupational Health and Safety Act to specifically address workplace harassment. If an employer fails to prevent or address workplace harassment, they could be financially liable and vicariously responsible for the actions of their employees.

The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission has received a total of 284 complaints last year. Three of them dealt solely with workplace sexual harassment and 28 included workplace sexual harassment alongside other complaints.

Marc-Alain Mallet, director of the N.B. Human Rights Commission, said this number likely only scratches the surface.

"This type of of of harassment is definitely underreported," he said. "That's why it's important for organizations, public and private, to develop more robust and accessible ways for people to have an avenue, to have a mechanism to be able to report these situations."

The program is federally funded until June 2024, Chisholm said, but the funding could be renewed if the program performs well.