HALIFAX — Nova Scotia sexual assault victims will now have access to free legal advice to help them consider their options after an assault.
Victims will receive up to four hours of independent legal advice through a federal-provincial pilot project.
Justice Minister Mark Furey says the government has been told clearly that victims and survivors needed better support.
"We know most sexual assault cases do not get reported," he said in a statement. "This pilot program will provide victims with the advice they need to make informed decisions about how they want to move forward."
Victims of sexual assault, or people who think they may have been sexually assaulted, can call the province's 211 phone service and obtain certificates for services from a pre-approved list of lawyers.
A justice official wasn't available for an interview Friday afternoon, but the department provided a "frequently asked questions" pamphlet that says people can use the service at any stage after an assault, regardless of whether it has been reported to police.
"The lawyer can help you to determine your legal options, such as whether you should report the matter to the police or take civil action," says the pamphlet. "You may decide after meeting with the lawyer, and receiving information about those processes, that you are choosing no further action at this time. This program is to help you make informed decisions. You have some choices on what happens next."
The selected lawyers in the three-year pilot program — funded by $810,000 in federal cash — will be provided with extensive training and will share their experiences and best practices.
Nova Scotia Liberal MP Bernadette Jordan said a better understanding of victims' needs leads to a more just and fair criminal justice system.
"If victims do not report sexual assaults because they fear they will not be believed, or they lack confidence in the criminal justice system, then the integrity of the system is called into question," she said in a statement.
Jackie Stevens, executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, says the project is an important first step towards legal advocacy for victims.
"We are excited that this service is in place as there is a major need for legal advice and support for survivors of sexualized violence going through the court process," said Stevens. "We encourage the Nova Scotia government to continue to prioritize justice reform."
The Public Prosecution Service will also create a guide for victims of sexual assault on the court process and provide sexual-violence training for Crown attorneys.
The Ontario government last year announced a $41-million plan aimed at combating sexual violence and harassment that includes a pilot program to provide free, independent legal advice to survivors of sexual assault.
Newfoundland and Labrador has announced a similar program.
The Canadian Press