Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Richard Wagner speaks during the welcoming ceremony for Justice Sheilah Martin, in Ottawa on Friday, March 23, 2018. Wagner, the chair of the Canadian Judicial Council, says that social context education provides judges with necessary skills to ensure “myths” and “stereotypes” do not influence judicial decisions, on the website. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Judicial council offers up courses for judges on handling sex assault cases

Website includes 10 offerings focused on sexual assault law, as well as one on sexual assault trials

The Canadian Judicial Council has launched a new website showcasing the training courses it is offering to federally appointed judges — including seminars to help judges handle sexual assault cases.

In a statement on the site, council chair Richard Wagner, who is also the Supreme Court’s chief justice, says so-called social context education gives judges the skills necessary to ensure “myths” and “stereotypes” do not influence judicial decisions.

The website includes 10 offerings focused on sexual assault law, as well as one on sexual assault trials.

The latter course includes video-based programs that provide judges with an overview of the sort of issues they’re liable to face.

In one session, experienced jurists discuss “rape myths” and “stereotypes,” and how such myths can propagate “rapidly” during various stages of the judicial process.

Johanna Laporte, the council’s director of communications, said Canada has “extensive” training for judges on a range of issues and the website is intended to inform Canadians of how judges keep up to date with the law and social context.

“While the recent public debate about sexual assault training for judges has cast a light on the need for added transparency, council’s main impetus was to showcase the breadth and depth of judicial education programming,” said Laporte.

“Many courses have elements of social context awareness and sexual assault law woven into them and council hopes that visitors will see that these complex issues are discussed in a variety of settings — not just in a stand-alone course.”

The question of how well-equipped judges in Canada are to handle sexual assault cases has been a hot topic in recent years, most recently after a Nova Scotia judge acquitted a Halifax cab driver, suggesting that even an intoxicated woman can consent to sex.

The federal Liberal government has thrown its support behind a bill, currently before the Senate, that would require judges to take courses in sexual assault law.

Bill C-337 would also limit judicial appointments to those who have completed comprehensive education in sexual assault law and social context.

It would also require the council to report on continuing education seminars in matters related to sexual assault law and change the Criminal Code to require courts to provide written reasons in sexual assault decisions.

The bill was introduced in 2017 by former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose after Provincial Court Judge Gregory Lenehan acquitted Bassam Al-Rawi of sexual assault, even though police found the partially naked complainant unconscious in the back of Al-Rawi’s cab shortly after the alleged incident.

The ruling — along with Lenehan’s comment in his decision that “clearly, a drunk can consent” to sex — prompted widespread protest. Earlier this year, Nova Scotia’s top court ordered a new trial in the case.

Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press

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