On 26 November 2014, Jian Ghomeshi, a prominent Canadian figure and former host of Q, a widely popular CBC radio show, was charged with 4 counts of sexual assault. What set this case apart from all other cases of sexual assault is not just that it involved a famous person; it’s the fact that the proceedings initially began outside the domain of our judicial system. By not taking the usual path of reporting the assault to police and instead going to the media, the then anonymous victims gave the public an opportunity to deliver a verdict. And so they did. After furious online discussions where boisterous individuals posted their opinions, and bashed others who disagreed with them, the majority sentiment emerged to be one that sided with the unnamed victims.
By delivering a verdict that sided with the victims, the so-called “court of public opinion” gave two victims the courage to remove their veil of anonymity. By releasing their identities, the women gave the public faces to recognize and sympathize with. It wasn’t shadowed portraits of “jilted ex-girlfriends” seeking to tarnish the reputation of a powerful man, but normal, Canadian women who could no longer stay silent, and felt that they deserved justice. And so, criminal charges were filed against Ghomeshi, thereby allowing the Toronto Police to launch an investigation into all the allegations.
Ghomeshi’s arrest brings an end to the responsibilities of the court of public opinion, and delivers him into the authority of our judicial system. But there lies the problem; Ghomeshi is now in the hands of the courts and our judiciary has a poor reputation in meting out justice to victims of sexual assault. Our courts should be institutions of the highest values that seek to preserve and protect truth, and uphold justice. Instead, the system is a failure and has let down Canadians; especially those who have suffered sexual assault.
The failings stem from the fact that unlike other crimes, sexual assault is very hard to prove. The absence of corroborating evidence in the hands of victims make many police officers hesitate to conduct investigations. In addition to this, a victim’s state of attire, or level of inebriation may prompt officers to conclude that the victim was mistaken about the event. Such false conclusions based on stereotypes and without preliminary investigations are mainly due to the lack of resources available to our police departments. Given a restricted budget, the responsibility is placed on police to invest resources in cases which they think are most likely to succeed. Although this may seem like a good strategy, it denies countless other victims access to justice.
As evidenced by the Ghomeshi scandal, when faced with unfair and unlikely odds of convicting an accused, some victims of sexual assault seek to use the media and other organizations to gain justice. Why do they do this? For most victims, the act of reporting sexual assault and the processes that follow (as stated earlier) can be a grueling ordeal. From having police officers blame them for someone else’s inappropriate actions to reliving the experience while being questioned under trial, the mechanism of seeking justice can be as equally traumatic as the actual event. This long and arduous process, combined with the social stigma of sexual assault makes most victims refrain from laying criminal charges. According to Statistics Canada, out of an estimated yearly 472,000 sexual assaults,  only 6%  of cases are reported to the police. In addition to this, a recent YWCA infographic stated that out of every 1000 sexual assaults, only 3 lead to conviction . In other words, only 0.3% of sexual assailants face consequences for their actions.
Seeing these numbers, one may ask why more women don’t take the option of using the court of public opinion. After all, the alleged victims of Ghomeshi have a better chance of winning in court now that national interest has been roused. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that the court of public opinion only accepts stories that can drive gossip. The reason the Ghomeshi case reverberated throughout Canadian media was because Ghomeshi – a popular Canadian icon – was at the center of it. Similar circumstances in political scandals, such as the senate expenses or Rob Ford’s drug use scandal, prove that the court of public opinion only displays interest if the person is famous, or if the case’s outcome is of public importance.
However, with a few sexual assault cases being the exception, most do not fit the criteria required to get attention in mainstream media. This means that the victims have nearly choice but to comply with our broken legal system. So the question becomes, what can be done to mend the cracks so that justice is accessible for all victims of sexual assault?
Given the complexity of this social issue, there is no quick fix, as policy and legislative changes by the responsible levels of government are required. However, the current situation can be greatly improved by making sure that police officers are well-trained and capable in dealing with complaints of sexual assault. Such a step would reduce victim-blaming by officers, and give them the tools necessary to guide victims to the next point instead.
Sexual assault is a grave problem and should be taken seriously. In order to eliminate it from our society, legal repercussions for the assailant is necessary. Thus, what’s needed is change to the legal system so that victims of sexual assault can come forward without hesitation, and receive justice.
“Op-eds are opinion articles that reflect the views of the author, but not necessarily those of the Editorial Board or of The Reckoner as a whole. Please note this important distinction when reading this article.”