A decision in Halifax has spurred politicians to act in Ottawa.
About a week after the outcry over a Halifax judge who acquitted a man for sexual assault and said during his ruling that "clearly a drunk can consent," reforms to the justice system seem to be on the horizon.
On Wednesday in Ottawa, the House of Commons unanimously agreed to fast-track a bill from Opposition leader Rona Ambrose that would make comprehensive sexual assault training mandatory for federally appointed judges.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair moved for the bill to skip its second reading and go straight into committee.
"It is rare for leaders of political parties to support each other's legislation but when it comes to how our judicial system handles cases of sexual assault, we must all come together and say: we believe survivors," Mulcair said in a press release.
Ambrose, the Conservative leader, said in the House of Commons that her bill would "make sure that judges aren't making basic errors or even worse, painful comments that make victims think twice of ever pursuing justice."
Those comments have been on the forefront of many minds since March 1, when Justice Gregory Lenehan of Halifax acquitted Bassam Al-Rawi, a Halifax taxi driver, of sexual assault.
Al-Rawi had been found by police in the front of the taxi with his pants undone. He was stuffing a woman's pants and underwear into the space between his front seat and the driver's console. She was unconscious in the back of the cab, naked save for a top that had been pulled up revealing her breasts.
"I have struggled to determine what all of this evidence proves," Lenehan said, in his judgement. "Although she appeared drunk to the staff at Boomers, who would not let her in because of her state of intoxication, she had appeared to make decisions for herself, however unwise those decisions might have been."
Following Al-Rawi's acquittal, another woman has come forward saying she too was assaulted by him in 2012 while she was trying to get a ride home. The investigation was closed by cops due to "lack of solvability."
If passed into law, Ambrose's bill would would not directly affect provincially-appointed judges like Justices Gregory Lenehan, because he was appointed by the province, but law professor Wayne MacKay of Dalhousie University hopes that "the provinces will then follow suit" should the bill pass.
"It does suggest there's a lot of goodwill and support to try to turn things around," says MacKay, of the vote in parliament on Wednesday.
Elise MacIntyre, a first-time activist who organized a letter-writing campaign to send complaints about Lenehan's conduct, told VICE that for her the decision to fast-track the bill was "huge—that kind of made my day."
"It's nice to see it was unanimous," MacIntyre, 27, said. "Even if it doesn't affect [Lenehan] directly I thought that was incredible."
Lenehan's decision resulted in a furor from women's rights advocates like MacIntyre, many of whom called for Lenehan's removal from the bench. Crown attorneys say they will appeal the ruling and that they believe Lenehan erred on six counts of law. A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Judiciary has confirmed that it has received at least one complaint, and all complaints will be will be reviewed by a judge appointed by the Chief Judge of the provincial court (who has recused herself as she is Lenehan's ex-wife).
The provincial judiciary spokesperson also said that all their judges receive training, including sensitivity training.
Ambrose's bill would also require the Canadian Judicial Council to report on its training about how to handle sexual assault cases, and demand that judges write out their decisions in sexual assault cases. Some experts have suggested writing out decisions would make it easier to hold judges accountable. For example, Lenehan's remarks were delivered orally, so they were only brought to public attention because Halifax reporter Haley Ryan covered the decision for Metro.
Earlier this week Nova Scotia's Liberal government also announced that they would be appointing two new special prosecutors to deal with sexual assault cases. A spokesperson added to VICE that the government had also previously requested federal funding to provide free legal advice to survivors "and it looks promising."
Nova Scotia's Public Prosecution Service made a request for the special prosecutors about two months ago, the spokesperson said, but the announcement will allow the lawyers to start recruiting for the positions, which will be funded in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
"Lack of sensitivity and accessibility for complainants is a huge issue," says MacKay. "I think it's good that they're recognizing the problem and investing some money to have some of the key players specially trained to deal with sexual assault."
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