One in five sexual-assault cases go to court, study finds

A new Statscan report on sexual assault comes amid mounting global attention to the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, and the often inadequate police response to those issues. (Wesley VanDinter/Getty Images)

Just one in five sexual assault cases substantiated by Canadian police end up in court, with about one in ten resulting in a conviction, according to a new study by Statistics Canada.

The findings, released on Thursday, mark the first time the statistical agency has followed sexual assaults reported by police in a national crime survey all the way through the justice system, tracking their rate of “attrition.”

Read also: Unfounded: Police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless, Globe investigation reveals

The fact that such a large proportion of alleged sexual assaults dropped out of the system between 2009 and 2014, the six-year window studied by Statscan, points to a national failure of criminal justice, University of Ottawa criminology researcher Holly Johnson said.

“I think that’s an enormous problem. I think that points to a failure on the part of the criminal justice system to provide a reasonably just response to a very serious violent crime,” she said.

The Statscan report comes amid mounting global attention to the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, and the often inadequate police response to those issues. A Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that Canadian police forces are dismissing one in five sexual assault cases as “unfounded,” – or baseless – and has prompted a wave of reform at the local and federal levels.

The attrition figures do not include sexual-assault allegations that are treated as unfounded, in part because Statscan did not track those reports between 2006 and this year.

The figures also exclude the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults that are never reported to police. It is estimated that only 5 per cent of sexual assaults in Canada are reported to police. Given these gaps in the data, Dr. Johnson noted that the number of sexual assaults that result in criminal convictions is much lower than the study could capture.

“We’re starting with 4 per cent of all sexual assaults,” she said. “The biggest attrition is when women don’t report. So encouraging women to report is fruitless unless we improve the system for them.”

Of the 93,501 police-reported sexual assaults covered by the study, 79 per cent did not end up in court, either because charges were never laid, or those charges were dropped before reaching court.

The biggest drop-off came in the decision to lay charges, which in most provinces rests with police (in British Columbia, Quebec, and New Brunswick, the Crown lays charges). Just 43 per cent of sexual assaults reported by police resulted in a criminal charge. Dr. Johnson suggested that police disbelieving women could be a factor in that disparity.

“Sometimes police are very blaming of women,” she said. “They say, ‘What were you doing there, what did you expect?’… That comes out in the research.”

In reports of sexual assault with an identified accused, police laid charges three-quarters of the time. However, only 59 per cent of the allegations studied by Statscan involved an accused identified by police. That baffled advocates and researchers, who pointed to evidence that victims of sexual assault are highly likely to know their assailant.

“It actually runs significantly counter to what we see in the front-line with sexual assault survivors and complainants,” Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, said in an e-mail. “For that reason I’m very curious to look more deeply at the methodology. I do note that this study is only looking at “founded” [sexual assaults], and that can skew the data a great deal.”

The biggest disparity between sexual and physical assaults came in the period between charges and the case reaching court. Three-quarters of physical-assault charges made it to court in the period under study, compared to about half of sexual assault charges. The Crown will sometimes drop charges before the accused can sit trial if they don’t believe there is enough evidence to convict. Since the Supreme Court’s 2016 Jordan ruling, which set new rules for the length of criminal trials, Crowns may face extra pressure to triage cases they handle and drop more sexual assault cases, which are often difficult to prosecute, Dr. Johnson said.

Because of common “rape myths” still prevalent in the criminal justice system, and the pressure to testify at trial, many women are also dissuaded from pursuing criminal proceedings between the charge and the courtroom, she added.

“I think women get worn down by the process,” Dr. Johnson said. “I think they might get frightened by the court process, especially if they don’t have much support.”

Of the sexual assault complaints that made it to court, a little over half resulted in convictions, only slightly less than for physical assaults.

The study, which excluded Quebec and PEI for methodological reasons, also found that sexual assault complaints made the day of the alleged offence went from charge to court more than half the time, while those made more than a year after the incident made it to court less than 20 per cent of the time. That disparity also affected the conviction rate once in court.

Kathy AuCoin, chief of the analysis unit at the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, a Statscan department, said the report contained lessons for the criminal-justice system.

“I think a lot of our justice partners will be very interested in it,” she said.

In a written statement, the federal Justice Department noted that last fall it gave $12-million for projects to improve the justice system’s response to adult victims of sexual assault.