I am a lawyer and have been practicing law for 22 years. I have practiced in several fields, including criminal and penal law, family law, and I currently practice municipal law. You are probably wondering what that has to do with our issue at hand, and my answer would be, it has little to with it and a lot to do with it at the same time.
My first contact with the sex industry happened when I was 23 years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a young prosecutor and a girl my age was appearing in court, as she had been caught in a part of the city that was restricticted for her according to a decree ruled by the court. In Quebec City, it was known as the “prostitution district”. When this girl appeared before the judge, she was very anxious and worried about who was going to feed her cat. She kept repeating “my cat is all that matters to me”. In my naivety, during the break I asked “Are we going to do something to reassure her and find someone to take care of her cat?” At that time, it was a silly question to everyone! They almost laughed at me and simply replied that it was beautiful to see me looking at the world with rose-coloured glasses.
The Judicial Process: Ordeal After Ordeal
Unfortunately, a career in the sex industry often comes with a lot of physical, psychological or sexual violence. For the victims, the legal process often appears as an impossible mountain to overcome, but more so, a disappointing one. Until recently, I would say that I too shared this opinion.
In the process, the victim undergoes a lot. This may involve condemnation, investigation, multiple delays for the hearing, judgemental interrogation, all to result in the aggressor receiving a sentence of just a few months. This stressful process for the victim of getting the attacker convicted leaves them saying to themselves “all this for such a short sentence?”
In recent years, however, there has been hope. The various stakeholders in the justice system are becoming aware of the fact that the way in which a victim’s case is handled needs to be completely reviewed.
Police officers now receive training that is more focused on the community aspect, bringing a more human facet to this profession. I can say that I see the changes day to day.
In 2022, the provincial government granted a subsidy program so that the various police services can hire social workers who will know how to properly support a victim. The first step, which is the meeting with the police, is crucial. A bad experience in the past is often enough to discourage a victim from filing charges. Therefore the hope is that having social workers present should facilitate this first contact.
The largest cities are creating more and more specialized teams within their police departments, particularly in sexual crimes. This allows a better understanding of the needs and fears of the victims who need to find the courage to file a report.
The Barreau du Québec has also followed in these footsteps of raising awareness by providing courses on sexual and domestic violence, but above all to teach lawyers how to properly manage cases involving a victim.
Promises of the Specialized Court
It was not until 2021 that the project for a court specializing in sexual and domestic violence emerged. The objective was to accompany the victim throughout the entire duration of the legal process, and even beyond. I understand from the statement of the Minister of Justice that some follow-up with the victim is to be expected after the trial. This specialized court should allow the victim to feel confident, but above all, not to feel alone through each of the steps that will lead to the trial. I allow myself to hope that a specialized court will also bring about harsher sentences for aggressors.
There is still a lot of awareness-raising to be done, but I believe that if all players in the justice system receive training helping them to understand victims, it is already a big step in the right direction, because a well-supported victim feels stronger and finds the courage to see through the charges she is making.
In addition, the courage recently demonstrated by some judges to impose harsher sentences in cases of violence against women cannot be ignored. This certainly demonstrates a desire to protect victims.
I think that all of these changes, although quite recent, will help victims file charges, denounce abuses and, above all, not feel alone or judged at each stage of the legal process.
Twenty-two years later, I still wear the rose-coloured glasses, as I regularly come across police officers, lawyers and judges who truly want to make a difference and treat victims for what they are: individuals who need to be recognized, supported and above all understood.
Annie Thivierge – Attorney and volunteer at La Sortie