On 24 March 2016, Justice William B. Horkins sent Jian Ghomeshi out of the courthouse a free man. However, the elation of one man was met with the fury of thousands. The result received widespread criticism, with many calling the trial an example of the justice system’s failures in addressing sexual assault. In truth, however, this case has only highlighted the strengths of the justice system.

There seems to be widespread complaint about the handling of the prosecution’s witnesses. While it is true that in other sexual assault cases there have been instances of “whacking” — using existing stereotypes and myths to secure a desired outcome [1] — that was not really an issue in this trial. At the same time, the witnesses were not given a free ride. Their credibility was challenged again and again, with the defense leaving no avenue unchecked. People seemed shocked at the pressure put on the witnesses, with many complaining about the difficulty in testifying. It is understandable that facing cross-examination from a defense lawyer can be an arduous task, but at the same time, there’s nothing that can really be changed. You can’t tell defense lawyers to go easy on witnesses or to question them in a “nicer” manner; their job is to protect their client, not to coddle the opposing witness.

In the wake of the result, many have also questioned whether the burden placed on sexual assault complainants is too large. They cite low conviction rates [2] and the difficulty of creating an airtight case, especially when events happened a long time ago. While there exists difficulty in prosecuting this sort of crime, which is so often reliant on witness testimony, this is not a reason for change. The standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is there for a reason. A conviction for a criminal charge can change someone’s life forever. Even if a person is only in jail for a few months, or perhaps even serves no time, they obtain a criminal record. A criminal record can destroy a person’s life economically, as many doors close to them. Perhaps even more significantly, a conviction with jail time removes a person from society for months to even years, essentially taking that time away from their life.

The current standard of proof essentially requires that we are absolutely certain that the person being put behind bars is guilty. Obviously there can always be doubts, but if there aren’t any that are based in reason, they are essentially pointless. Yes, this burden may mean that a guilty man or woman may go free; however, it also means that an innocent one won’t go to jail. In our society, freedom for the innocent is prioritized over punishment for the guilty.

With this in mind, a sexual assault case isn’t really different from others. A criminal charge is still being laid, and the consequences of conviction are similarly high, perhaps even higher due to the high stigma surrounding the issue. Although it may be hard to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in many cases, that does not mean that we should lower the burden. In essence, that would be saying that because a person’s been accused of a certain crime, they deserve less protection than others defendants.

This isn’t to say that our justice system perfectly addresses sexual assault cases. There are still problems inherent, especially surrounding stereotypes and low levels of reporting. However, this doesn’t mean that criticisms should be hurled at anything that moves when a desired outcome is not reached. Instead, people should be focusing on the real problems which lead to these undesired outcomes, and finding ways to rectify them.

Illustration: Valiant Chan

Illustration: Valiant Chan

[1] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/whacking-the-complainant-is-a-real-and-current-systemic-problem/article28695366/

[2] http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/12/05/conviction_rate_for_sexual_assault_very_very_low_researcher.html

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