For survivors of sexual assault, navigating the justice system can sometimes be a confusing and traumatizing experience.
A new program launched by Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG) is hoping to change that, by offering free legal advice to Albertans who have been the victims of sexual violence.
The four-year project, which is funded by the federal government, will match clients with a lawyer who will help demystify the justice system by explaining to victims their rights and preparing them for what a potential court case could bring.
“Often it is the people who are victimized by sexual violence who are the ones that suffer through the legal or the justice process,” said Marina Giacomin, executive director of Calgary Legal Guidance.
“A big part of what our program is aiming to provide is a place for survivors to get answers to their questions and be empowered to make informed decisions about how they want to proceed, whether that be through the justice system with community supports or however they want to choose to move forward once they’ve survived something like a sexual assault.”
Giacomin said the program is the first of its kind in the province and will be especially helpful for those who wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer otherwise.
She said the program’s structure is based on an in-house program that CLG runs for domestic violence survivors.
It applies a more empowering approach to legal services for the assault survivor in a justice system where victims are traditionally seen as witnesses who must bear the burden of proof, said Giacomin.
“The onus [is put on victims] having to prove that they were actually hurt and traumatized by this thing that occurred to them, and that in itself can be almost as damaging as the assault.”
Sasha Best, a lawyer with CLG’s new program, said its these types of experiences within the justice system that can often retraumatize survivors by making them relive what happened to them in detail.
She said that preparing victims for a criminal trial and explaining what will be required of them is one way to mitigate those impacts.
“The system may be trying to assist you, but ultimately it’s demanding things from you [that you] may not fully understand,” said Best.
“The hope is that victims will be less retraumatized by the process because they’ll sort of have a better command of what it will look like, and a better ability to choose how and when they participate.”
Giacomin said the program plans to partner with law firms working pro bono who will be able to provide ongoing representation for clients who choose to pursue legal action, but that it will support victims no matter which avenue they choose.
“A survivor may never want to tell the police what happened, they may never want to go through a court process,” she said.
“And that’s okay. We’re here to support them in whatever decision it is that they want to make.”