By: Nicolas Di Nardo
Canadian judges are going back to school, or at least, that’s what it feels like. Judges must “understand the people they are judging” says Justice Adele Kent, head of the National Judicial Institute. That is the primary goal of “social context” education, which is cited in a federal bill now before the Senate.
Questions about what education should be mandatory for judges about certain issues, such as gender-based violence and sexual assault law were front and center at a human trafficking conference, which had about 45 judges attend.
Judges were shown videos of real cases, filmed with actors, with the script taken verbatim from transcripts in order to educate judges about human trafficking, domestic violence and why a victim may not leave an abusive partner, may not call the police and may have an emotional connection to their abuser.
The conference was interactive. It involved the group, as they were required to participate by writing questions down, and even a single word to describe how they felt about what they saw when watching video segments.
Some of these words included “horror,” “sadness,” “disillusionment” and “helpless.”
The 45 judges were then invited to submit questions during a break in the conference, which was then discussed with a panel.
The panel was moderated by:
- Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Sheilah Martin
- Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Sheila Greckol
- U.S. judge Ann Goldstein from the International Association of Women Judges
- Nicole Barrett, expert on law and human trafficking (University of British Columbia)
One of the questions was – how common is the woman’s explanation for why she did not leave?
“She is isolated from others, she lacks financial independence, she has broken self-esteem, she has a fear of escalated violence, she has a fear of retaliation, that they will tell her family, a psychological bond with her abuser… once you start listing the reasons she doesn’t have, it becomes fairly overwhelming.”
The second question addressed the reason why the judges were there. The question began with “until this job and judicial education, I had no way to be aware this happens to ordinary folk.”
Ontario made this training to take place for new judges, a mandatory piece of education that took effect in March. The training for new judges in sexual assault law and social context education is monitored by the Canadian Judicial Council.
Just like any other occupation, judges are also in need of ongoing education to be up to date. Changes in law, social context, and other advancements within our society are crucial for judges to stay on top of. Justice Martin makes a great point, “the criminal laws have changed as societies have changed,” and judges must be educated on how and why changes occurred.
Social context education is another important part of this training. It focuses on the understanding of diverse life situations, to understand individuals being judged, through:
- Examinations of race
- Mental illness
- Gender-based violence
It is designed like the human trafficking seminar, and will involve academics and community groups.
Not only must the judges change, but police, lawyers, and alternative models from the criminal justice system must do more to tackle sexual assault.
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