Reporting, prosecuting sexual assault cases an uphill battle

The courts have no room for sympathy.

Evidence beyond a reasonable doubt must exist for police to lay charges so that there is a probability of conviction in a criminal trial. Sometimes, this is impossible — I can’t count how many cases I’ve covered that ultimately did not lead to a trial because of a lack of sufficient evidence.

Physical evidence and witnesses are two crucial tools for police to determine if there’s enough to lay a charge.

But people don’t usually choose to assault or sexually assault someone if other people are around. And physical bruises or blemishes are not always part of the equation. So often, it’s one person’s word against another.

This can put police in a precarious situation. They have to take the victim’s word for their safety and to ensure they leave no stone unturned. But they must also be mindful of the accused’s rights. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

As seen in the highly-publicized Jian Ghomeshi trial, which led to no conviction, the experience of being cross examined in a court setting can be as traumatizing as the incident that originally led a person to file a complaint with police in the first place.

It’s no wonder that less than 1 of 10 sexual assaults are reported to police, according to stats from the Canadian Centre for Justice.

The Canadian Centre for Justice says that in Canada, 81 per cent of sexual offences take the form of unwanted touching, which falls under the category of level one sexual assault. 58 per cent of victims who did not report a sexual assault stated it was because they did not feel it was important or serious enough.

Furthermore, the same report says that convictions for sexual assault cases are lower than for other violent crimes; only half of the sexual assaults that go to trial lead to a conviction. Police lay charges in roughly one third of sexual assaults reported, compared to about half for other violent crimes.

These three factors coalesce into an extremely daunting and discouraging process for anyone who is a victim of sexual assault.

While the presumption of innocence is of paramount importance, it’s also critical that the justice system inspires confidence from victims of sexual assault in order to ensure that their allegation is dealt with fairly and reasonably.

People cannot be convicted based on sympathy. But perhaps the courts could offer more sympathy to victims of sexual assault by providing some level of legal assistance, so that the cards are stacked fairly when complainants are up against far more experienced and well-equipped lawyers and crown prosecutors.

It’s one step that could help in improving Canada’s dismal numbers when it comes to reporting sexual assaults.

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