MONTREAL -- The project to create a court specializing in sexual assault and domestic violence cases in Quebec has taken an additional step.

Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette announced Monday he gave a working group the mandate to lay the foundations of this specialized tribunal, long demanded by women's groups.

This committee will look at the feasibility of the project, and indicate how it could take place concretely, on a daily basis in courthouses.

Quebec is following up on a report by a group of experts, tabled in December, which recommended the creation of such a body, in order to better support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in court, who often feel wronged by the legal process or who immediately give up filing a complaint, not trusting the justice system.

If it is up to the justice minister, everything indicates that a specialized court will indeed see the light of day. 

“My wish, as minister of justice, is to follow up on the recommendation [of the committee of experts], which recommends the creation of a specialized tribunal,” Jolin-Barrette said in a telephone interview.

But there are still several steps to be taken and several obstacles to overcome before welcoming the first complainants.

As soon as it was announced, the composition of the future working group was already being contested. The minister said it would be made up of representatives from the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Public Security, the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DPCP), Legal Aid and the Court of Quebec.

But certain groups of women believe the committee is too small. They are displeased to see that those in direct relation with victims were excluded from the committee, contrary to what the group of experts recommended in its report.

In an interview, Louise Riendeau, spokesperson for shelters for women victims of domestic violence, said she was convinced that “if we want to be sure that it meets the needs of victims, that we rebuild the trust of victims, we think groups like ours need to be there.”

Minister Jolin-Barrette is not closing the door to this idea. He explained that, initially, he wanted to bring together those “who operate on a daily basis in the justice system,” those who are on the front line, in “organizational” terms. However, “we can expand later,” he said.

To ensure the formula chosen truly meets expectations, Riendeau suggested setting up the tribunal gradually, by first creating a pilot project in a courthouse located in a medium-sized district. Jolin-Barrette said it was still too early for that level of detail.

If implemented as planned, the specialized court will provide increased assistance to victims at all stages of the process — before, during and after legal proceedings. 

The idea is to ensure the justice system adapts better to the specific needs of victims of sexual crimes and domestic violence — women in the vast majority of cases, often helpless in the face of the administrative maze and coldness of the system.

Sexual assault is one of the least reported personal crimes, at around five per cent of cases.

A specialized tribunal would have the advantage of being composed of members (police officers, lawyers, prosecutors, interveners) specially trained in matters of sexual and domestic violence. 

In principle, such a court would also offer various accommodations to victims to help them testify and aim to shorten the processing time for cases.

 - This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2021.