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Canada Judge under fire for 'unacceptable' comments on appearance of teen victim in sex-assault case

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee responds to the Opposition during question period Tuesday, May 30, 2017 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec's Justice Minister has asked the province's judicial council to investigate a judge who commented on the physical appearance of a teenage sexual-assault victim and suggested she was flattered by the attention.

Justice Jean-Paul Braun of Quebec Court was presiding over the trial of a taxi driver last May when he made the comments.

"She's a young girl, 17. Maybe she's a little overweight but she has a pretty face, no?" the judge said in recordings first unearthed by the Journal de Montréal.

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Speaking French, the judge went on to describe the young woman as a "fleur bleue" (sentimental or romantic.) "She was a bit flattered," the judge continued. "Maybe it was the first time he showed interest in her."

Read also: Order to reveal judges' training in sexual-assault cases blocked

Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said one word when asked Wednesday about the judge's comments: "Unacceptable." Her spokesperson later confirmed the minister has asked the Conseil de la magistrature, Quebec's judicial council, to take up the matter.

Neither the judge nor Quebec's judicial council would comment.

Justice Braun found Carlo Figaro guilty of sexual assault last summer for touching, kissing and licking the 17-year-old café worker who was riding in his taxi cab. Sentencing is scheduled for next month. Mr. Figaro has launched an appeal of his conviction.

The girl described how Mr. Figaro asked for her phone number and made other advances before he started kissing, touching and licking her to the point of knocking off her glasses with his tongue.

On the recording, the judge mused about different levels of consent that might be required for kissing compared to touching someone's buttocks.

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The judge uses a French expression, "mettre la main au panier," (putting a hand in the basket) to describe the assailant putting his hands on the woman's rear end.

"She looks nice, she's polite. A man is interested in her, he tries to kiss her. Surely the same consent isn't required to try to kiss someone as for touching her bottom?"

"I've never seen that distinction in jurisprudence," prosecutor Amélie Rivard replied.

Several controversial sexual-assault cases have brought calls for mandatory continuous training for judges, including a bill by former Conservative leader Rona Ambrose currently before the Senate.

Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based advocate for sexual-assault victims, says she is encouraged by the recent "appetite for accountability" in cases of questionable judicial conduct. She fears, however, that Canadians are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

She also called for mandatory continuing training for all legal professionals, but especially judges, who may deal with sexual assault.

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"Too many people are making decisions around sexual assault who have no idea what the hell they're talking about," Ms. Lalonde said.

"It needs to be nipped in the bud with first-year law students, a sexual violence 101 conversation as soon as anyone shows an interest in the legal system. Judges need to be trained to dispel myths and ensure they understand consent and how trauma affects witnesses."

The National Judicial Institute trains federally appointed judges who sit at higher levels of court than Justice Braun. While the training isn't mandatory, NJI executive director Justice C. Adèle Kent says most chief justices expect their judges to attend annual training sessions.

Justice Kent said sexual assault has been an area of emphasis in recent years and will be the main topic of 2018's main annual session.

She said some lower court judges also attend NJI courses, particularly from Ontario and British Columbia.

The Quebec Court website says it organizes regular continuing education sessions for judges but does not specify sexual assault as a topic. Chief Justice Lucie Rondeau declined interview requests and issued a statement: "It's up to the judicial council to decide now if a code of conduct violation has been committed."

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In recent months, judges across Canada have come under scrutiny for their handling of sexual-assault cases.

In March, former justice Robin Camp of the Federal Court of Canada resigned after a disciplinary body recommended his removal from the bench. While sitting as a Provincial Court judge in Alberta in 2014, he asked a sexual-assault complainant why she didn't keep her knees together.

Nova Scotia Provincial Court Justice Gregory Lenehan is facing a review after he acquitted a Halifax taxi driver who was found by police in his car with a passed-out drunk woman who was naked from the waist down. A police constable testified the man's seat was partly reclined, his pants were undone and that he tried to hide the woman's underwear. Justice Lenehan said "clearly … a drunk can consent" in his ruling. The case is under appeal.

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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