Category Archives: News

The Ghomeshi Verdict: A Few Thoughts

On Thursday, Jian Ghomeshi was found not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking. For many, the verdict came as no surprise.

You can read the full decision here.

As PhD student Tamera Burnett discussed in a previous post, the case has served as an opportunity for feminists to highlight the ongoing failures of our legal system when it comes to sexual assault.

Unfortunately, the message does not always get across. For those not already well-versed in the multiple barriers faced by complainants in sexual assault trials, feminists who decry the intense scrutiny of complainant behaviour, brutalizing tactics of defence lawyers, and rape myths that continue to pervade decisions like this one just under the surface, are easily dismissed as raging social media mobsters for whom “Ghomeshi is damned well guilty, and this reasonable doubt stuff is just slippery legalese.” 

The line between standing up for survivors and reversing the presumption of innocence can seem perilously thin. We should be wary of the temptation to gloss over the question of evidence too easily, or take a judge’s words out of context, even in the heat of justified anger. The verdict in this particular case was not wrong; to convict on the evidence as it stood probably would have been.

But in the words of  Amanda Dale: “The institutional shadow cast by the false stereotypes about claimants is in no way equivalent in influence to the raw call to believe sexual assault survivors coming from outside the courtroom.”

That the evidence didn’t stand up in court does not mean that the many brave women who came forward were collectively lying about their experiences of violence with Ghomeshi. Justice Horkins himself recognized in his decision (problematic as it was, more on that below), that a finding of not guilty does not mean that the events described did not happen – a reality all too common in cases of sexual assault. Here lies the problem. Here is the good reason we have to be angry: the total disconnect between the law and women’s actual lives.

I attended the final day of the Ghomeshi trial as well as another sexual assault trial taking place around the same time at Old City Hall. Around that time, I had two particularly heated exchanges with defence lawyers, one right inside the overflow courtroom where we heard the closing submissions in the Ghomeshi trial. For those lawyers, and others quoted in the media, this case is about credibility and the presumption of innocence, full stop.

I get that. But what about the reality of sexual violence in thousands of women’s lives? What about the vast majority of cases that never make it to court because women don’t feel they have the financial, emotional, social or legal resources to come forward? What about the financial, emotional and social consequences for those who do go stick it out through a trial in which every detail of their personal lives is publicly scrutinized, only for a judge to find that their stories don’t measure up?

When I raised these issues with the lawyers I spoke to, they basically just shrugged.

While the verdict may have been right, as Professor Brenda Cossman and many others have pointed out,  Justice Horkins’ reasons perpetuate skeptical and distrusting attitudes towards sexual assault complainants, giving them yet one more reason not to bother coming forward in the first place. 

On the one hand, this judge, like the other  I observed in Mandy Gray’s sexual assault trial, clearly recognized that sexual stereotyping could get them into trouble. They would need to look no further than the fate of Judge Camp following his rape-myth riddled 2014 decision in R v Wagar.

I suppose that is something. The problem is that the analysis stops there. As Professor Julie MacFarlane notes,  once lip service is paid to the hard-learned dangers of rape myths, the myths keep right on doing their work under a thinly veiled cover. 

If Justice Horkins claims that “[c]ourts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants”, then why does he repeatedly rebuke the complainants for not recognizing the relevance of this conduct? And why is he so confident in concluding that the complainants’ behaviour is “odd” and “out of harmony” with the alleged assault.

If it is “entirely natural” for survivors to become involved in advocacy work, then why does he feel comfortable speculating that such work might give a witness the motive to lie.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the condescending suggestion, after meticulously listing all of the shortcomings of the complainants’ testimony, that being a witness in a criminal trial is “really quite simple: tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”  Unfortunately, for many women who experience sexual violence, the truth isn’t actually that simple.

The troubling thing about this case is not the presumption of innocence absent a high standard of proof. It is the failure to see anything beyond it.

-Dana Phillips

Tamera Burnett: A Feminist Perspective on the Ghomeshi Trial

picture of TameraTamera Burnett is a student in Osgoode Hall Law School’s PhD program, where she is working on how to approach sentencing in sexual assault trials through an intersectional feminist lens.  She’s been following the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial and she’s generously offered us her thoughts on the topic.

Some Overarching Comments on the Ghomeshi Trial from a Feminist Perspective

For the past several weeks, mainstream and social media has been flooded with articles and conversation about the Ghomeshi sexual assault trial. For feminists, this trial has represented an opportunity to talk about the many discriminatory issues plaguing this area of law. On the other hand, the trial has also shown us just how much work remains to be done on this issue, both in the legal system and society at large.

In 2014, Jian Ghomeshi, formerly a household name for his musical, written, and radio show work, was accused of sexually assaulting 23 different people (mostly women) over a period of many years. Of those accusations, only a handful of charges were brought to court. The most recent trial involves the accusations of three of the victims.

One of the most discussed issues arising from this trial is defence counsel Marie Henein’s use of the “whacking the complainant” strategy. To whack a complainant is to conduct as an aggressive and emotionally trying cross examination as possible in order to destroy the credibility of the complainant. Though some argue that such vigorous questioning is necessary to ensure that the accused receive a fair trial, Amanda Dale, Joanna Birenbaum, and Pamela Cross point out that no defence should perpetuate inequality. Whacking the complainant often relies on discriminatory assumptions about how “proper” victims should act. Because Ghomeshi’s victims didn’t immediately break off all contact with him and go to the police, their claims of sexual assault are seen as untrue. Yet having conflicted feelings and taking time to accept what has happened is something that many sexual assault survivors experience. The focus of a sexual assault trial should be on the actions of the parties during the time period of the assault. To assume that questions about consent are answered by after-the-fact behaviour on the part of the victim disregards the way that Canadian criminal law is structured, and relies on harmful rape myths and stereotypes. As Lucy DeCoutere’s lawyer announced shortly after her client was cross examined:

“This is and remains a trial about Mr. Ghomeshi’s conduct. What Lucy did or how she felt in the aftermath does not change that essential fact…. Violence against women is not about the behaviour of the women; it is not about how they cope with an assault, or the details they commit to memory in the aftermath any more than it is about what they wore or how much they had to drink.”

Such aggressive cross examination also ignores how memory works. Not only do memories fade over time, a very relevant fact when dealing with assaults that took place over a decade ago, but trauma influences how events are committed to memory. That witnesses did not remember what make of car Ghomeshi drove, or whether or not they had hair extensions at the time of their assault is not a sign that their memories were false. Badgering witnesses about these extraneous details doesn’t tell the court anything about the assault in question, and credibility should not be accorded to only those with perfect recollection.

Furthermore, almost all of the attention in this trial was placed on the complainants while Ghomeshi remained silent about his behaviour. No accused can be forced to testify, but this means that Ghomeshi was not quizzed about his memories. His rationalisations were not demanded in a public forum, and his choices not systematically picked apart, despite the reasonable steps requirement of Canadian sexual assault law. Acknowledging this gap in the trial narrative is particularly important given that some of Ghomeshi’s behaviour appears to reflect the attitudes and actions of abusers. According to some victims, Ghomeshi made sure he had written documentation to show that his victims seemed to want to engage in sexual activities with him, and that any communications after sexual or violent contact remained flirtatious and friendly to support this claim. Accusations of inappropriate behaviour, therefore, could be countered with documentation suggesting that victims approved of what happened between them and Ghomeshi, a tactic used by abusers to justify and disguise their problematic behaviour. Additionally, other victims have come forward to state that he groomed them for violence, drawing in his victims with stories of vulnerability, and then emotionally manipulating them to create doubt that Ghomeshi could be at fault for any issues in the relationship. While none of these details were discussed at length in court, they can be seen over and over again in the stories of the victims who have come forward. Ghomeshi was never “whacked” on the stand, but bikini pictures of his victims were submitted as official evidence. Even if these disparities are required by the letter of the law, the spirit of justice is damaged when a trial incorporates so many unfair and irrelevant standards for complainants, while at the same time protects an accused from scrutiny into his behaviour.

Finally, the Ghomeshi trial highlights an important ethical conflict in criminal defence lawyering: when does a vigorous defence for an accused begin to undermine the administration of justice as a whole? Though the accused must be protected from the overwhelming power of the state, the actions of criminal defence lawyers should never directly harm society in order to protect their clients. After all, there is a substantial difference between protecting your clients’ rights and doing whatever possible to ensure that they are acquitted. David Tanovich argues that Canada needs a better standard for ethical defence lawyering in sexual assault trials. He and Elaine Craig state in a recent Globe and Mail article that while “[some] of the brutality of our adversarial system is inevitable[, it] is intolerable and shameful that our profession permits these unavoidable harms to be compounded by conduct that is neither ethically or legally permissible.” Using rape myths and stereotypes to imply that a complainant was not a victim because they didn’t report soon enough, didn’t respond in the right way, weren’t the right type of victim, or any other such discriminatory claim, makes it less likely that people will come forward to report sexual assaults, and undermines the administration of justice by allowing legal decisions to be influenced by untruthful, irrelevant, and misogynistic understandings of sexual assault. Defence lawyers must find a better balance between the needs of their clients and their obligations to the public.

Both Crown and defence made their closing statements in the Ghomeshi trial on February 11, 2016. The judge’s ruling is being held until March 24th when Canada will find out how strongly rape myths and discriminatory beliefs about sexual assault victims still unfairly influence our justice system.

 

 

 

Loujayn Alhokail: Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia

Last fall, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Adelina Iftene kicked off what I hoped would be a series of guest posts featuring the work of  graduate and postdoctoral scholars at Osgoode who are engaging with feminist perspectives  (see Adelina’s post here).  In this second guest post, I’m very pleased to introduce PhD student Loujayn Alhokail, who studies the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia through a lens of legal consciousness.

-Dana

Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia it is legally required that Saudi women, of all ages, must have male guardians. Under this legal rule, women are not allowed to travel, continue their education, or have access to certain medical procedures without the consent of their male guardians. Theoretically, women are allowed to have access to most of their other rights that are recognized by the state. However, in reality, the guardianship rule is one part of a multi layered system of laws, policies, and traditions that, combined, puts most of women’s legally recognized rights under the discretion of their male guardians. Such system includes policies such as the ban on women’s driving and gender segregation.

The male guardianship system is historically supported by traditional interpretations of Islamic texts that Saudi Arabia recognizes. Saudi Arabia, as an Islamic state, gains its political legitimacy from enforcing Islamic law, and thus, according to traditional interpretations, enforcing male guardianship over women. The reality is that the male guardianship system is based on very narrow interpretations of Islamic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the male guardianship system causes many negative effects for women. Some Saudi women are unable to access some of their basic Islamic law rights that are recognized by the state because of cultural obstacles that are supported by this system. Such rights include access to marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

Witnessing some of the recent changes that the Saudi state is leading in favor of women’s rights, and observing how the state is limited in its ability to enforce fundamental changes in favor of Saudi women’s rights, have encouraged me to analyze some of the historical and socio-political reasons underlying women’s disadvantaged status in the Kingdom. My current research focuses on the cultural context that leads to normalizing and legitimizing the male guardianship system through a legal consciousness lens. Most Saudi citizens shape their legal consciousness under a culture that explicitly supports the existence of the male guardianship system. In this research, I am particularly interested in the individual experiences that have shaped the legal consciousness of citizens who recognize the negative effects of this system. By analyzing these experiences, I am hoping to move the male guardianship system debate forward while aiming to unblock social change in favour of Saudi women’s rights.

Loujayn Alhokail 

I am currently a Ph.D. student at Osgoode Hall Law, York University. I earned my law degree from King Saud University, Saudi Arabia. I have since then completed my LL.M. in law at Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University where my Thesis looked at the use of marriage contracts to hasten the wheel of change in favor of Saudi women’s rights. I am hoping to use the knowledge that I gain in Canada to help strengthen legal education in Saudi Arabia.

 

 

The Fifth Estate re Wilno Murders: Why Didn’t We Know?

Last night, I watched the most recent Fifth Estate episode, about the murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk, and Nathalie Warmerdam last September near Wilno. The episode asks (shows) how the criminal justice system failed these women and others in abusive relationships. Not a good choice of bedtime material. Be prepared to be outraged (and probably shed some tears).

Osgoode PhD student and long time women’s advocate Amanda Dale has a brief spot towards the end of the episode, where she responds to the due process question in such cases.

Why Didn’t We Know?

In a matter of hours last September, three women were killed near the small town of Wilno, Ontario. The man arrested and accused of their murders, Basil Borutski had a long criminal history, including charges involving two of the three women. How did the system that’s supposed to protect women go so disastrously wrong? Gillian Findlay investigates, with revealing interviews with family members, friends of victims and witnesses

 

 

Good News: Accomplishments

Thanks to Manitoba’s Deb Parkes, a reminder that we should share and celebrate the achievements of women in the academy. Here are three pieces of good news Deb noted. Brighten up the greyish days of January with these.

1. Prof. Angelique EagleWoman has been named Dean of Law, Lakehead University.  She is an accomplished professor from the University of Idaho and a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation.

I’m adding this link to an article of Dean EagleWoman’s on SSRN called Balancing between Two Worlds: A Dakota Woman’s Reflections on Being a Law Professor (you will find the abstract at the link – the paper was written for a follow up conference after the publication of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, discussed long ago on this blog)

2. Sherene Razack (OISE) appointed Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto.

The idea of interlocking systems of oppression (how patriarchy, colonialism and white supremacy come into operation through each other) is one of her most important contributions to theory and practice.

3. Karen Busby (U of M) received the Dr. and Mrs. H. H. Saunderson Award, the University of Manitoba’s highest honour for teaching.

Prof. Karen Busby challenges her students to do more, be more,
dream more. She not only ignites within them a passion for learning law but inspires them to find their own voice. Prof. Busby develops citizen lawyers who defend human rights and democratic values. She is growing the next generation of advocates for social change—individuals who will fight back against oppression.