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Justice minister apologizes for saying lawyers can't retraumatize survivors of sexual assault

Justice Minister John Hogan is apologizing for comments made last month in the House of Assembly, where he said lawyers in Newfoundland and Labrador do not retraumatize survivors of sexual assault. (Mark Quinn/CBC - image credit)
Justice Minister John Hogan is apologizing for comments made last month in the House of Assembly, where he said lawyers in Newfoundland and Labrador do not retraumatize survivors of sexual assault. (Mark Quinn/CBC - image credit)

Newfoundland and Labrador Justice Minister John Hogan is apologizing for comments he made in the House of Assembly on March 6, when he said "it's impossible" for lawyers to retraumatize survivors of sexual assault in a courtroom.

Hogan said the comments were made during a heated moment in the legislature, and that he has since spoken with lawyers and advocates about why his remarks were hurtful and incorrect.

"Having reflected on that specific comment in relation to how lawyers can conduct themselves, or do conduct themselves, in the courtroom, the statement was wrong," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show. 

The comments were made in response to a petition presented in the House by NDP MHA and justice critic Lela Evans. In the petition, Evans requested a directive be considered by the province's chief judge to prevent lawyers from approaching witnesses or yelling at them.

Hogan then took issue with Evans' remarks about approaching witnesses, saying lawyers stand in one spot behind a bench during the examination of witnesses.

"There's no approaching of a witness," he said at the time.

"So, I don't want anyone in this House to mislead what's happening in court here with regards to sexual assault victims. It's a very serious issue and the lawyers in this province are not retraumatizing sexual assault victims, whether it's a Crown or a legal aid or a private lawyer in this province. It's not the way it works. It's actually impossible for it to happen."

Entire process traumatizing for survivors, says advocate

Those comments — particularly the last line — caught the ire of Paula Sheppard, executive director of the Corner Brook Status of Women Council.

Her organization, as part of the Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women, wrote a public letter seeking an apology from the justice minister.

Sheppard said they couldn't let his remarks go unaddressed, especially after the federal ombudsman for victims of crime recently launched an investigation into the systemic treatment of sexual assault survivors.

"We know that the experiences of sexual assault survivors is very much wrought with retraumatization throughout the entire system, and it's not just lawyers," Sheppard told CBC News. "The entire criminal justice system continues, really continues, to retraumatize sexual assault victims."

Sheppard said the remarks were especially surprising coming from the justice minister — the person in the best position to influence change within the system.

"Part of the reason we needed to address this is because of the power and influence his position holds, and to have this kind of statement out there was troublesome at the very least," Sheppard said.

Shortly after issuing the letter, Hogan was in contact with Sheppard and offered his apology.

He referenced his own legal experience, which did not include criminal law or litigation involving sexual abuse survivors, and said he learned from the backlash to his remarks.

"I always was aware that the system is not perfect and it needs some work," he said. "Lawyers reached out to me after those comments in the House in a good way and said you need to think about what you said, and this is what happens in some situations in court and lawyers can conduct themselves, maybe intentionally and maybe unintentionally, in a way that can harm victims. I think those are good conversations. In a way I'm glad this happened, to continue to have those conversations and to learn."

Hogan said he hopes this experience can lead to cooperative discussions on how to make the justice system more inclusive for survivors of sexual assault.

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