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Yukon justice system fails victims of abuse: advocate

Reem Girgrah has three pieces of advice for women entering the Yukon court system for a case of sexual or domestic assault: know your rights, be prepared for the process to take a long time and be ready for a fight.

Reem Girgrah has three pieces of advice for women entering the Yukon court system for a case of sexual or domestic assault: know your rights, be prepared for the process to take a long time and be ready for a fight.

“Victims should anticipate that it will take a long time and there will be a lot of waiting (in the court process),” Girgrah said. “It could be months after charges are laid before they even get to trial…. Women need to know what their rights are before going forward.”

Girgrah is the volunteer coordinator for Court Watch Yukon (CWY), a not-for-profit group which sits in on court cases involving sexual assault and violence cases in the Yukon, collecting and analyzing the experiences of women in the courtroom.

Girgrah said CWY looks for “language that minimalizes or mutualizes the violence.” A 2004 University of Lethebridge report found, “a strong correlation between lighter sentencing for the accused and the use of mutualizing and minimizing language,” she said. Minimizing language is when the defence attempts to discredit the severity of the abuse and mutualizing language is when the defence attempts to make the victim complicit or appear to have otherwise shared in the abuse.

“I hear the phrase, ‘toxic relationship,’ all the time in court,” said Girgrah. “It makes me furious.”

Girgrah said in a recent abuse case the defence tried to portray the victim as “this jealous, lovesick person” in an effort to discredit her testimony. “I think to myself, ‘Is this really happening right now?’”

A 2015 report by the CWY entitled In Her Best Interest, found significant barriers to court participation for women, including the social stigma associated with testifying and feeling unsafe both in and out of the courtroom. Girgrah said this combination of social pressure and fear is something that sometimes keeps women out of the court system or that makes the experience of being in court particularly emotionally difficult.

“This is a serious issue,” she said. “Fear comes up a lot. Whitehorse is small and Dawson City and Watson Lake are even smaller — the smaller a community is, the worse the social pressure is. The community tends to come out to participate and watch in these things and the accused’s family might be there. Private things are exposed publicly and it can be really difficult and uncomfortable for the victim.”

Girgrah said women can request to testify in another room via camera or two-way mirror, so they don’t have to see or be in the same room as the accused.

Part of the difficulty for women in the court system may stem from a failure to understand that the Crown is not necessarily there to represent the woman, Girgrah said, but is there to represent the state, whose interest lies in determining whether the law has been broken. There has recently been some discussion in Ontario about having a third lawyer to represent the interests of the victim in this kind of proceeding, she said.

“I would love to see what would happen — how the system would change — if that were to happen,” she said, “Right now, women really need to be prepared to advocate for themselves, and this is something not all women might be prepared to do.”

One of the biggest factors affecting women in the courtroom, both in the Yukon and nationally, is the way society perceives the reporting of sexual and domestic violence by women, Girgrah said.

“We have the public idea that women cry wolf,” she said. “It feeds into the false notion that women are lying about their experiences…. We know that when a woman calls the RCMP to report domestic violence, she’s probably experienced violence long before that and she just wants to violence to stop in that moment … but the legal system doesn’t take that into consideration, doesn’t consider it relevant in that moment.”

This attitude leads to lower sentences for the accused or sometimes outright “false acquittals” even when the accused is actually guilty, she said, which in turn perpetuates the “cry wolf” stereotype.

This appears to be reflected by the data. A recent Globe and Mail report found that 29 per cent of Whitehorse sexual assault cases are dismissed as “unfounded” (meaning they do not go to court), a full 10 per cent higher than the national average. Of the cases that did go to court in 2014, 24 per cent were dismissed without convictions. Numbers were similar in Dawson City, Watson Lake and Carcross.

A September 2016 federal “justice report card” gave the Yukon an F for the supports it offers to victims, and the Yukon’s justice system was awarded the lowest score nationwide.

Despite these difficulties, women who have participated in the court system often say, “they would do it again,” Girgrah said, but, “we still have a lot of work to do, unfortunately.”

There are resources available to women currently going through the difficult process of court proceedings for sexual or domestic violence, including the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre, Victim Service Yukon and Many Rivers. More information on Court Watch Yukon is available on Facebook.