Photo: CC, Edmx.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Money too often a barrier to justice, low-income women most likely to face sexual assault

When it was announced that Erin Andrews, American sportscaster and television host, was awarded $55 million for her civil suit against Michael David Barrett, the man who stalked and filmed her through peepholes at the Nashville Marriott and Radisson Airport Hotel, it seemed like a victory.

The problem, however, is that the $55 million value isn’t actually $55 million. Instead the Andrews verdict will turn into around $6 million, according to TMZ, as only about half is coming from Marriott and the other half is coming from Barrett, who most likely will be unable to pay her in full. This is before legal fees, which usually comes out to about 40 per cent of the recoverable judgment.

Andrews presumably makes an upper-middle class salary, which would allow her to afford a lawyer even if she didn’t win the suit. However this is not always the case when it comes to sexual assault survivors, in fact, according to multiple Canadian General Social Survey studies, survivors are actually more likely to be unemployed or have lower incomes.

If survivors are already having trouble coming forward in sexual assault cases, as less than one per cent of these offences get reported to the police, money acts as another barrier to justice. This is why sexual assault survivors should have access to free or discounted lawyers for civil suits.

Considering the fact that only three of every 1,000 incidents of sexual assaults in Canada lead to a conviction, civil suits do seem the way to go, and have been recommended by experts as a good alternative to criminal suits. The problem is that they can be expensive, and therefore inaccessible to many survivors.

The provincial government is on the right path. At the beginning of March it was announced that Ontario would launch a pilot project to give sexual assault survivors in Toronto, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay free legal advice, in order to encourage survivors to come forward about their experiences and become more informed about their options.

While these are positive strides, legal advice can only do so much. If this pilot succeeds and is eventually implemented provincially and nationally, it will help many survivors, but money will always be a factor that prevents survivors from being able to fully find justice and move on from their assaults.

Even if lower-income survivors received the pro-bono aid first, it would encourage more survivors to come forward about their assaults and help not only these individuals, but the legal system to re-evaluate how it deals with sexual assault.

Currently, so few survivors come forward that it’s difficult to know exactly how many assaults take place and what should be done to help reduce sexual assault and better help survivors.

Offering free legal aid to survivors of sexual assault will allow us to talk with survivors about how they can be helped, how to prevent sexual assault in the future, and ultimately shift away from norms that encourage survivors to keep quiet about their assault towards a culture that supports them in speaking out about it.