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Order to reveal judges’ training in sexual-assault cases blocked

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A judge has refused to order a national judicial organization to reveal its training materials for sexual-assault law.

Edmonton lawyer Tom Engel had asked for the order, saying the National Judicial Institute's training may lead judges to be biased in favour of complainants and arguing that his client, Robert Harper, who is accused of sexual assault and other offences, may not be able to receive a fair trial. The judge-run group, whose board of governors is chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, refused to turn over its materials to him, calling them irrelevant to Mr. Harper's guilt or innocence.

Justice John Little of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench agreed with the NJI and did not ask its lawyers to present their arguments. After hearing from Mr. Engel, Justice Little dismissed the application. He said Mr. Engel had not proved that the materials were related to the assessment of the complainant's reliability and credibility, as he had hoped to show.

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Adèle Kent, the NJI's executive director, applauded the ruling. "I think that this application shows that there is a false connection between education that judges may receive and bias in deciding a case," she said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

"If that linkage is accepted, then everything a judge reads or studies outside of the courtroom could lead to the conclusion that he or she is biased. That cannot be the case, or we as a society would ask judges to remain isolated, not reading the newspaper, watching TV, engaging with their community and so on. In fact, the modern view is that judges need to be engaged and understand the people, the community, the society that they judge. In that context, judges are trained to decide cases on the evidence they hear in the courtroom and the law and to do that fairly and impartially."

Mr. Engel intends to argue that the complainant consumed drugs and attacked Mr. Harper and that her credibility will be a key issue at the trial. "I was in a bit of a catch-22 because I don't know what's in those educational materials," he said in an interview after Justice Little's ruling.

The complainant cannot be identified under federal law.

Mr. Engel's request came as a bill requiring candidates for the federal bench to receive training in sexual-assault law is being debated in the Senate. That bill, proposed by former interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose, received all-party approval in the Commons.

It followed a public disciplinary hearing for a former Calgary judge who asked a sexual-assault complainant why she hadn't kept her knees together. That judge, Robin Camp, resigned from the Federal Court – to which he'd been moved from Alberta Provincial Court – after a committee of the Canadian Judicial Council recommended that Parliament dismiss him.

Robyn Doolittle explains the background of the Globe and Mail's Unfounded investigation into police handling of sexual assault allegations. The series won the international Data Journalism Awards for best investigation after spurring major shifts in public policy and new reviews from police services.
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