Ontario government launches free legal advice program for sex assault survivors

March 29, 2016

Ontario will launch a $2.8-million pilot program this spring granting survivors of sexual violence access to free legal advice, one of the moves to overhaul the legal system that women's groups have called for in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi trial.

Those living in Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay who allege they have been sexually assaulted and are 16 or older can apply for up to four hours of independent legal counsel. The project was announced last March as part of other provincial initiatives to combat sexual violence.

If the program's successful after two years, it will expand to other communities, said Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. He did not say exactly how the ministry would measure success.

Civil vs. criminal courts

Amanda Dale, the executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic — which will oversee the project's Toronto arm — said that she wants to look at whether it helps women better understand what to do after a sexual assault, whether they choose to go to police and criminal court or the civil justice system.

"It's at the very outset that people most need the information about the system and all the options available to them," Dale said. "The program's not necessarily to increase convictions but to make people aware of all the choices they can have."

That could mean bypassing the police and the criminal courts, institutions excoriated online and at rallies after Ontario court of justice Judge William Horkins acquitted Ghomeshi, 48, on four counts of sexual assault and one of choking on Thursday.

The shifting narratives of the three complainants simply raised too much doubt about the credibility of the rest of their testimony to convict Ghomeshi, Horkins said in his decision.

Read more: Ontario government launches free legal advice program for sex assault survivors

Read more: Independent Legal Advice for Sexual Assault Survivors Pilot Program