New pilot project provides free legal advice to victims of sexual assault

by Brittany Wentzell

  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Member of Parliament Bernadette Jordan speaks at the funding announcement while provincial Justice Minister Mark Furey looks on.</p>

Victims of sexual assault will now have some more help in the Nova Scotia judicial system with the introduction of free legal advice.

The federal government is providing $810,000 for a federal-provincial pilot project that will provide up to four hours of free legal advice to the adult victims of sexual assault.

Provincial and federal representatives made the announcement November 10 at Freeman House in Bridgewater, which is a part of the local community Sexual Assault Services network.

It was apparent the issue of sexual violence is one that Mark Furey, MLA for Lunenburg West and Nova Scotia's Justice Minister, is passionate about. When speaking to the crowds and reporters later on, Furey was visibly emotional, highlighting his 38 years as an RCMP officer.

"It's these types of announcements today that are making a difference. When I think of the challenges I faced in a policing profession, it was often around single mothers, young families, abuse, physical, sexual, psychological and many obstacles to overcome to really get those people the support they needed," Furey told reporters, adding that there was a lack of services available during his time as an officer.

"This is one example of where we can make a difference."

The minister also touched on ideas around making victims, particularly women, more comfortable seeking help from various avenues, whether that is a nurse practitioner providing aid outside a hospital setting, or talking to a lawyer in a safe space like Freeman House, saying often what impeded victims was a lack of comfort in the process.

"There's more work to do, this is a great announcement to do, but there is more work to do and we are committed to that work as a government, I'm committed to that work as a minister, and I'm committed to that work as a member of this community."

The issue was so important to Furey, he approached Bernadette Jordan, MP for South Shore - St. Margaret's, to ask that the announcement be made in his riding.

Jordan, who represented the federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, told those gathered that it was important for victims to be able to come forward and feel they will be believed, in order for the justice system to work.

"Victims and survivors often feel lost when dealing with the justice system," said Jordan.

Jackie Stevens, executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, explained why the process can be overwhelming to victims.

"The Crown is there to present the case, and the victim becomes a witness to their case, and they're not acting on behalf of the victim so sometimes things might come up where people might need to have legal advice and legal representation and until now, unless someone had independent finances for that, there wasn't the ability for many people to talk to a lawyer," said Stevens.

She doesn't believe four hours is enough time because of the complex nature of the legal justice system but she says the move is a good step.

Jordan says the program, along with the amount of time provided, will be re-evaluated at the end of the three-year pilot.

A list of eligible lawyers and their profiles will be provided online for victims using the program so that they can choose the lawyer themselves. Those lawyers will provide advice to help victims navigate the legal system, whether or not they choose to go forward with a court case.

The funding will also go toward the Public Prosecution Service to create a guide on the court process for victims and survivors of sexual assault and provide training specific to sexual violence for Crown attorneys.

Nova Scotia's 211 service will provide information and help victims seek the services confidentially.

Nova Scotia is the second province in the country to provide this type of programming. Ontario also has an ongoing pilot project to provide free legal advice, but it is only available to residents of Toronto, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay right now.

Funding for the project came from the federal Department of Justice's Canada Victims Fund.

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