MONTREAL -- Sexual assault victims in Quebec will soon have access to free legal advice through the Juripop Clinic.

Justice Minister Sonia Lebel made the announcement Monday, saying the government will dole out $2.6 million for the pilot project, as part of a $50-million package over five years announced in the last budget to strengthen the support and protection of vulnerable people.

The initiative is part of the ongoing work of a committee of MNAs from all parties, as well as an expert committee on support for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Juripop has already started recruiting partners throughout all regions of Quebec, and they will be trained accordingly, said director general Sophie Gagnon.

"Access to justice remains a challenge for people who have experienced sexual violence: there are many remedies and the system is complex. Our services will enable victims to assert their rights, understand the justice system and regain power over their lives," said Gagnon, who thanked the government committee for its "dedication to curbing sexual violence in Quebec."

The legal clinic will begin its work at the beginning of 2020 and open to victims in the spring, running until March 31, 2021. The goal is to treat victims with openness and understanding and provide them with accurate and complete information and advice -- including of the formal complaints process.

"We decided to go ahead with this pilot project because we knew that this was one of the dark spots, if I have to say, for victims," said Lebel.


Legal system can be difficult to navigate

The legal system can be daunting for victims, said Lebel.

"What do I have to tell the police? What are they going to ask me? If I go to the police do I have to go to trial, do I have to testify?" are all questions victims have, said Lebel, adding that "they don't know what they're facing, and they don't know the challenges ahead."

Gagnon said Juripop will help a victim navigate those difficult issues.

"The first thing we do is we identify the person, we hear their story, and then we identify their legal needs," she said.

Juripop estimates hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults happen every year, but only a fraction ever make their way through the court system.

"We're hoping that by being accompanied and supported there will be more charges that will be pressed," said Gagnon. "It's their story that's being decided, that's being tried before the judges. So what we're doing, we're holding their hand and helping them understand what the next steps are."


It's a first step 

Marguerite-Bourgeoys MNA Hélène David, who is the Liberal critic for the status of women, calls the project "an important step towards better support for victims of sexual violence."

Parti Québécois MNA Véronique Hivon adds the new system will "put victims at the heart of our actions," and "it is no longer the victims who are adapting to the judicial system, but the system that is adapting to the needs of the victims."

The Federation of Women's Shelters welcomed the announcement, but said there's still a long way to go.

"It's only like we're opening the door," said the federation's director general, Manon Monastesse.

Andrea Pessoa, vice president of Women Aware, which supports survivors of domestic violence, also called it a step forward.

"Every little victory is a victory. Every bit counts."