Legal Aid Alberta adds new way of assisting sexual assault complainants in complex legal territory

New procedure will help reduce delays and provide Albertans with lawyers who can help protect their rights in sexual assault trials.

Communications and Public Relations
February 03, 2021

Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) is speeding up the ways they help vulnerable Albertans in sexual assault cases by providing legal support for all complainants whose sexual history, relevant e-mails or text messages, and medical records may come under scrutiny in a trial.

“The rules of evidence are complicated in sexual assault trials. For example, the accused sometimes asks a judge for permission to discuss the complainant’s sexual history, or to show a jury emails or text messages the complainant sent someone,” says Danny Lynn, Legal Aid Alberta Senior Advisory Counsel. “And sometimes the accused asks for permission to see the complainant’s medical records or counselling records.”

In these cases, Canadian law protects complainants’ privacy by giving them a chance to tell the judge what they think should happen.

LAA already provides lawyers for complainants in such cases, to help them navigate these complicated problems and help make sure the judge hears their voice. But now, Legal Aid Alberta and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service have worked together to create a new, more efficient way to ensure the complainant gets a lawyer quickly and avoid unnecessary delays.

Legal Aid Alberta has chosen to make this service available to every complainant in a sexual assault prosecution in Alberta who has the right to respond to one of these complex applications–regardless of their financial circumstances.

Lynn says, “We’re helping people navigate a very difficult moment in their lives. Our goal is to ensure the criminal justice system remains fair for everyone.”

For example, suppose Chris accuses Sam of sexual assault. Sam’s lawyer wants to tell a jury about earlier encounters – times when Sam says the two had consensual sex. Under Canadian law, Sam’s lawyer must ask a judge for permission to reveal this information to a jury. The judge then weighs all the circumstances, balancing Sam’s right to a fair trial against Chris’s privacy rights. A Crown prosecutor represents the community in the courtroom, but Chris also has the right to a lawyer.

Legal Aid Alberta appoints lawyers to help people like Chris, at no cost. Giving complainants a lawyer helps avoid delaying criminal trials, helps ensure complainants understand their legal rights, and helps address the growing number of applications in sexual assault cases where complainants can tell a judge what they want to happen.

Until last month, however, judges had to issue court orders to connect a complainant with a lawyer. This process sometimes led to unnecessary delay, putting extra strain on a justice system that is already backlogged and dealing with pandemic operational pressures.

“Time is of the essence in these sorts of applications. Nobody wants to see a trial delayed because a complainant hasn’t had an opportunity to get legal advice.”

Under the new system, Crown prosecutors will contact LAA directly. LAA then draws on its staff lawyers and its province-wide roster of lawyers in private practice to find a lawyer who can help the complainant. In many cases, Legal Aid Alberta can appoint a lawyer for the complainant the same day. Complainants receive up to 10 hours of free legal advice and support.

“Time is of the essence in these sorts of applications. They arise right before a trial starts – and sometimes even in the middle of the trial,” Lynn explains. “Nobody wants to see a trial delayed because a complainant hasn’t had an opportunity to get legal advice. We hope this new system will cut down on court delays by eliminating unnecessary paperwork.”

LAA has been working with the courts to continue to reimagine the way service is delivered, especially to Albertans who need it the most. LAA’s team of staff and roster lawyers across the province allow the organization to offer this new pilot service.

“The Legal Aid Alberta hybrid model of staff and roster lawyers throughout the province allows us to find lawyers anywhere on short notice. Legal Aid Alberta is well-positioned to quickly connect complainants with lawyers,” Lynn adds.

Media Contact
Richard Cairney
Senior Communications Officer
Legal Aid Alberta
Phone: 780-721-8951
Email: rcairney@legalaid.ab.ca

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About Legal Aid Alberta

Legal Aid Alberta is a not-for-profit organization that provides legal representation and support for Albertans facing legal issues.

LAA provides legal services to clients in support of fairness in Alberta’s justice system – services that help ensure Albertans in all circumstances can understand and defend their legal rights.