When Canada’s Courts Undermine the Rule of Law

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If you want to send a message to violent repeat sex offenders that the crimes they commit aren’t that serious or that the lives of young women have little value, convict and sentence them in a Canadian court.

On paper, Canada has one of the best criminal justice systems in the world. Throw in people with the same stereotypes and victim blaming myths as the rest of us and we end up where we are today – dealing with a criminal justice system that’s as traumatizing to victims as the assault they’ve suffered through and is often described by them as a colossal waste of time.

Even with the rare instance of a conviction, justice is rarely seen to be done.

Last November, BC Provincial Court Judge Paul Meyers sentenced a North Vancouver teenage boy who sexually assaulted a teenage girl inside a bathroom stall to two-weeks behind bars before serving the rest of his three-year sentence in the community.

It was the young man’s second conviction for sexual assault and in this case, he left the young woman with such severe injuries she was rushed to a hospital in critical condition

“It’s not something we see a lot of in Vancouver. We do have, unfortunately, a large number of sexual assaults. They don’t often get to this level of violence,” Const. Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department said at a March 1, 2016 press conference.

“It makes me really upset,” victim Sam Fazio* said in an interview with the Vancouver Sun.

“People go on vacation for two weeks.”

The Crown had sought to have the offender serve the full three-year period in custody.

“I feel like this whole situation shows other people who have survived sexual assault, there’s nothing they can do to get real justice,” Fazio said. “It’s been hard for me to even trust anyone through all of this because they tell me one thing and something else happens. Ultimately, this just shows that you can get away with sexually assaulting someone.”

The sentence sparked outrage in the community and led to a petition calling for the judge’s removal from the bench. As of this writing, the petition has almost 85,000 signatures and I’m sure if every person in Canada signed it would make as much difference.

In an opinion piece for The Province, a group of criminal defence lawyers and advocates wrote that a petition calling for the removal of Judge Meyers  is “wrong, misguided and will not accomplish anything other than undermine the rule of law.”

Undermine the rule of law? If anything is undermining the rule of law its the courts sending the same message over and over again to victims that the damage done to their lives and their faith in our courts is a trivial sidebar.

When an overwhelming amount of sexual assault victims believe its pointless to go to the police or are so afraid of being re-traumatized in court, arguments about the rule of law and judicial independence amount to little more than academic banter.

Victims will think of cases like this when they’re deciding if they should report or go through a gruelling trial. If there’s little to no consequences for convicted sex offenders what’s the point? Taking the stand will only add to the heartache and trauma they already feel.

Judge Meyers stated during sentencing that the young man who assaulted Fazio wasn’t able to graduate with his friends and has been shunned by his community. Flip that on its head and Meyers is saying the entire trial was pointless because the young man involved had already received a far harsher sentence than the courts were willing to impose. So harsh in fact, that Myers locked him up for a measly two weeks after finding him guilty of a horrifically violent sexual assault.

It can be argued that Meyers’ hands were tied by the Youth Criminal Justice Act, but it was Meyers who made the decision the young man would be sentenced as a youth and not an adult. The judge claimed he lacked the maturity that would have warranted sentencing him as an adult. 

The maximum sentence for aggravated sexual assault as an adult is life in prison.

I get asked sometimes how I feel about the four young men in Rehtaeh’s case getting away with it, but the truth is they didn’t. The community Rae grew up in was so outraged by what happened I doubt any of them will be able to do anything meaningful with their lives.

A couple of weeks ago I received a message from someone asking me if one of the men he works with was one Rehtaeh’s rapists. It’s not a question I can answer, but I can still easily find their names online and so can anyone else with an Internet connection.

Employers, teammates, neighbours, acquaintances, and fortunately, prospective dates.

It leads to an obvious question – if the community nets out punishment in the form of shunning rapists and our courts take that into account to justify grossly inappropriate sentences, why are we spending billions of dollars a year on a criminal justice system that fails to hold sex offenders accountable 97% of the time? Or sentences them in such a way it leaves victims wondering why they even bothered.

Being held accountable by an outraged community costs nothing.

I know the argument everyone deserves their day in court and is innocent until proven guilty, but we should never allow sentiments of justice to put us in a place where we’re willing to ignore a dysfunctional system that repeatedly enables rape with indifference.

Much has been written about Justice Robyn Camp and his, “why didn’t you keep your knees together” comment, but what happened since then to change the process that put him on that bench in the first place?

Camp worked as a civil litigator, primarily in the areas of contracts, trust, and oil and gas law, before he was appointed to the bench in 2012. He had no background in criminal law and brought with him every possible victim blaming stereotype he could, up to and including calling the victim “the accused.”

“He made me hate myself,” the victim who was unfortunate to be in Camp’s courtroom later said.

The Canadian Judicial Council, in its report into Camp’s conduct, states that Camp was so “manifestly and profoundly destructive of the concept of the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judicial role that public confidence is sufficiently undermined to render the judge incapable of executing the judicial office.”

So how much faith we should have in a system that allows anyone like Camp to get appointed to the bench? And what’s been done to make sure a mistake like that doesn’t happen again? What is our government doing to address this mess? Are we to believe he’s the only one?

In a 2014 Department of Justice report, 34% of sexual assault victims didn’t report to the police because they had no confidence in the criminal justice system. The two-week sentence imposed by Judge Meyers is one of the many the reasons for that lack of confidence.

Why would anyone want to go through such a traumatizing experience when they can clearly see there won’t be any justice or accountability. Many victims report because they feel they need to do everything they can to hold their abusers accountable.

Over and over again our court’s and lawmakers reply with the message that they won’t be.

But young women today aren’t just whispering to each other which guy to stay away from, they’re posting it online.

Somewhere out there an employer is Googling a prospective employee’s name and the first hit that comes up states he raped a fifteen-year-old girl.

You can argue that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but you can’t say they got away with it.

When was the last time you could say accountability like that happened in a courtroom?

* Sam Fazio had the publication ban on her name lifted.

Sam Fazio has put together an incredible podcast about her case. You can listen to it here – InformedPodcast