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Sexual assault training now required for new federally appointed judges

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Law also requires judges to issue written decisions in sexual assault cases.

A long-awaited bill requiring that new judges agree to undergo training on sexual assault and systemic racism before they’re appointed to the bench has become law.

Bill C-3 received royal assent Thursday after passing third reading in the Senate.

“This bill sends a very strong message to sexual assault survivors and to all Canadians: You can rest assured that our judicial system will treat you fairly and respectfully … [and] cases of sexual assault will be heard without the influence of myths and prejudice.” Justice Minister David Lametti said in French at a press conference Friday.

The law will have a significant impact on how the federal government appoints judges and how sexual assault cases are handled in Canada.

Here is what you need to know.

What will the bill do?

The bill makes a number of changes to the Judges Act and the Criminal Code.

It requires that all new federally appointed judges agree to take continuing education on sexual assault law and the surrounding “social context,” which includes systemic racism and systemic discrimination.

The requirement applies only to judges newly appointed to provincial and territorial superior courts — the highest levels of court in a province or territory. These judges deal with the most serious criminal and civil cases and have the power to review the decisions of provincial and territorial courts.

The training will come in the form of seminars given by the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) — an independent body that oversees the federal judiciary — and the National Justice Institute, an organization that provides educational programs for judges.

The law directs that the seminars be developed after consultation with sexual assault survivors and related organizations. It also requires the CJC to report to the justice minister the content of the seminars it provides each year, and how many judges attended each one.

The new law also amends the Criminal Code to require judges to put their reasons on the record or in writing when they rule on sexual assault cases.

How did it come about?

Bill C-3 was modelled on a private member’s bill originally introduced by former Conservative cabinet minister Rona Ambrose, who also served as interim Conservative leader after Stephen Harper resigned as party leader.

Before stepping down as an MP in 2017, Ambrose introduced the Judicial Accountability Through Sexual Assault Law Training Act.

Ambrose said the bill was necessary after a series of high-profile cases revealed that many judges adhere to archaic stereotypes about women who are subjected to sexual violence.

In one case, former Federal Court judge Robin Camp came under fire for comments he made during a 2014 sexual assault trial in Calgary.

Court transcripts from the trial show Camp, who was then a provincial court judge, called the complainant, who was homeless and 19 years old at the time of the alleged assault, “the accused” numerous times. He also told the young woman that “pain and sex sometimes go together” and asked, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”

Camp stepped down from Federal Court in March 2018 after the CJC recommended that he be removed from the bench.

After the bill passed, Ambrose told CBC News that such episodes make women less likely to report sexual assaults to authorities.

“We should expect that those people that we appoint to the bench are completely competent in the law when they’re overseeing trials,” she said.

“And they also should keep up with training that around social norms and values. So that includes unconscious bias training, how they treat people in the courtroom [and] the kind of language that’s used in the courtroom.”

Ambrose told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics Friday that the law’s purpose is to build confidence in the justice system so that more victims of sexual assault come forward to tell their stories.

“This is a small piece of the puzzle but that it shows that we can reform our institutions and right now that’s something that I think we are all thinking about,” Ambrose told guest host David Cochrane.

“Our institutions are quite opaque. We think about the army, we think about the RCMP, we think about our judiciary. We need more transparency, we need to work to reform it and education and training is a great way to do that.”

Why did it take so long to become law?

Ambrose’s bill passed the House of Commons in May 2017 with bipartisan support before being tied up in the Senate for two years. It died on the order paper when the 2019 federal election call wiped the parliamentary slate clean.

The bill initially was held up by some Independent and Liberal senators, who argued it would interfere with the constitutional principle of judicial independence. But Senate amendments at the legal affairs committee appeared to satisfy those concerns.

Later, Conservative senators used procedural moves to run out the clock on a number of private member’s bills at the end of the parliamentary session in the summer of 2019 — including Ambrose’s bill and another aimed at ensuring federal laws were harmonized with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

In an interview in the National Post in June 2019, Ambrose accused her former colleagues in the Red Chamber of playing “political games” by delaying the bill’s passage.

The Liberal government introduced Bill C-3 in October 2019 after forming a minority government following the election. It sailed through the House by November and was passed by the Senate without amendment Thursday.

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