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NSBS working with community to develop trauma-informed approaches to addressing sexual violence

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The recent acquittal in Halifax of an accused charged with sexual assault has drawn considerable public attention to our criminal justice system and, as individual cases often do, it has sparked an important public discussion of systemic issues surrounding sexualized violence. 

The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society cannot speak to the specifics of the March 1, 2017 decision and this statement must not be taken as a comment, in any way, on the appropriateness of that decision. That is not the role of the Society. In a free and democratic country, we entrust judges to make important decisions and they must be free to do so within the limits of the law. The independence of the judiciary is an essential component of Canada’s criminal justice system and there are processes in place to deal with individual decisions, including the appeal process.

But we are hearing from the public that the issues are much bigger than one decision. As the regulator of the legal profession in Nova Scotia whose primary mandate is protection of the public, we recognize that the Society has a role to play in addressing the legitimate concerns regarding sexualized violence and how it is addressed in the criminal justice system. The issues are far too complex for any one organization to tackle alone. Addressing these issues is a shared responsibility of government, the courts, the community, the legal profession and other organizations across the justice system. Failure to recognize and address those concerns will only erode the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and collectively, we cannot let that happen. 

Over the last several years the Society has, though education and workshops, been addressing the prevalence of sexualized violence in our communities. One important initiative underway is #TalkJustice, through which the Society has been asking Nova Scotians to share their stories and experiences with us on all aspects of legal services and the justice system. Through #TalkJustice, we have been hearing concerns around sexualized violence and we want members of the public to know the Society respects and values their input and perspectives.

The Society’s work has shown these issues to be of major concern for lawyers and the public. Through a number of initiatives, we are partnering with organizations such as Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, YWCA Canada and Be the Peace Institute. We are working diligently to develop better ways of responding to sexualized violence. We recognize the harm caused and are working across the justice system for improvement for all who are impacted by violence of this nature.

In addition, one of the Society’s new strategic initiatives is to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action – these include the call to develop trauma-informed approaches to dealing with sexual violence.

This year, our Equity & Access Office is focusing much of its work toward ensuring more culturally competent and trauma-informed lawyers across Nova Scotia. Here are a few of the ways in which the Society is supporting lawyers and firms in their efforts to build the skills, attributes and attitudes necessary for meeting Nova Scotians’ legal needs in ways that respect the dignity of all persons:

  • Through #TalkJustice, the Society and other partners in the Access to Justice Coordinating Committee are asking Nova Scotians to share their stories and experiences through an online tool at talkjustice.ca. The results of this input will help to inform and shape future changes across the system.   
  • The Society is building a section of trauma-informed education resources in our online Equity Portal, ranging from articles and best practices to short educational videos. These will have educational value for others in the justice system, not just lawyers.
  • The Equity & Access Officer provides in-person cultural competence training to a wide variety of audiences including articled clerks, law students and attendees of multiple conferences, including one that addressed the needs of survivors of sexualized violence.
  • The Gender Equity Committee (GEC) is working with community groups and the Equity & Access Office in designing an education seminar on trauma-informed and women-centered lawyering. It will assist legal service providers in recognizing the signs of trauma in their clients, in helping to mitigate further traumatization of clients during the criminal justice process, and in identifying supports and services available for survivors of sexual violence in Nova Scotia.
  • Work continues in researching and collecting best practices and other resources for lawyers who assist survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
  • The Society is partnering with Be the Peace Institute on its 2017-2019 initiative addressing the roots and consequences of violence against women and girls in Nova Scotia. Through the GEC, we provide support and advice as the Institute designs and develops alternatives to the traditional justice models.
  • For our annual Wickwire Lecture in partnership with the Schulich School of Law, we invited law professor Elaine Craig to discuss The Ethics of Sexual Assault Lawyering on December 1, 2016. She explored the ethical obligations of Crown attorneys and defence lawyers, and how the attitudes and practices of some lawyers can further contribute to the harms experienced by sexual assault complainants. Professor Craig’s lecture is available for viewing on YouTube.

There is work to be done, and we are committed to ongoing improvement so the public is better served by its justice system. We want to hear from you.