A guide for sexual assault survivors
Addressing medical and physical concerns, legal and reporting options, and coping with emotions
We recognize this is a very difficult time for you. It is important for you to know that the Canadian Armed Forces is here to help.
A sexual assault can happen to someone once, more than once, or even over many years. It can happen to anyone, women, men, LGBTQ2, young or old. A person can be sexually assaulted by a stranger, their partner, dates, coworkers, acquaintances or family members. People in authority and professionals can also commit sexual assault. Even if the survivor was very close to the person who sexually assaulted them, it is still a crime.
Sometimes people who have been sexually assaulted feel as though it is their fault. Sexual assault is never your fault. It does not matter what you were wearing, what you were doing, who you were with, or where you were. Sexual assault is the fault of the person who commits the crime.
If you are not ready to report to police, we encourage you to seek medical attention and reach out for support.
What will I be feeling during this time?
There is no “right” way to feel. Some victims/survivors are very emotional, tearful and anxious after an assault. Others seem to be very cool, calm and collected, and may seem to be in control. You might have trouble sleeping and begin to have nightmares. You may lose your appetite and find that thoughts about the assault start to interfere with your daily life. You may feel you are re-experiencing the sexual assault. You may find it difficult to cope with work or the course that you are on as it becomes harder to concentrate. You may feel especially anxious when you see or hear anything that reminds you of the sexual assault. All of these feelings are normal.
Some of the effects that you may experience…
- Physical problems
Headaches, fatigue, sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, injuries, etc.
- Psychological problems
Sadness, denial, depression, guilt, anger, shame, fear, nightmares, irritability, etc.
- Sexual problems
Decreased desire or promiscuity, disgust, pain during intercourse, avoidance, etc.
- Interpersonal problems
Dependence on others for support, isolation, rejection, lack of trust, victimization, etc.
- Frustration or anxiety
Heightened sensitivity to prejudices, feelings you have no power over your life, etc.
- Financial, social or family problems
Difficulty at work, rejection by friends, loss of income, etc.
- Addiction problems and other self-defence mechanisms
Alcohol, drugs, gambling, medication, food, exercise, self-harm, etc.
Sometimes these feelings gradually fade on their own, but some people need to talk to a counsellor or even take medication to help them deal with these emotions. Contact the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre for information and access to support services.
What to expect at the hospital
It is important to receive medical care as soon as possible after a sexual assault. Even if it’s been a while since it happened, this care is essential.
Go to a hospital or to Health Services (to have injuries treated, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, emergency contraception, etc.).
A nurse in the emergency room will examine you (take your vital signs, etc.) and determine if you require medical treatment. If so, the nurse will follow up with a doctor.
The doctor will give you the medical care you need and provide information on services available to you. The hospital may complete a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit. The kit will collect forensic evidence. For more information on this process, contact the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre.
If you undergo a sexual assault evidence exam, a number of specimens will be taken (sperm, saliva, blood, urine, etc.) in order to find any physical substances left on your body or clothing as well as chemical substances you may have ingested.
The criminal justice process
The following sections explain, step-by-step, in a general way, how a Canadian criminal prosecution works.
Who will investigate my case?
The police conduct criminal investigations. Investigations begin when police witness behaviour or receive information about behaviour which may be a crime. Some criminal investigations are completed quickly. Others take weeks, months, or, in complex matters, years to complete.
What if the offender is not caught?
Unsolved sexual assault cases are never closed. They remain active. If further information is received, action will be taken that may lead to an arrest.
What happens after the arrest?
Once a person has been arrested and charged with a crime, they become “the accused”. Depending on the circumstances, the police can hold the accused in custody for a bail hearing or release them with conditions.
If the police have not released the accused, the accused must go before a Justice of the Peace (JP) or a judge within 24 hours of the arrest for a bail hearing.
At a bail hearing, the Justice of the Peace (JP) or Judge will decide if the accused is granted bail or kept in jail. Bail means someone known to the accused provides money or any type of surety as a promise that the accused will show up for his or her future court dates. The accused may also be required to agree to obey certain conditions as decided by the JP or Judge.
One of the conditions is usually a “No Contact Order”.
This means the accused cannot have any contact with you – not even through a third party. An example of a third party is the accused getting a friend to call you for them. The accused cannot contact you by phone, letter, e-mail, text message or in person. Generally, the accused will not be allowed near your home, school and/or work. If the accused disobeys any of their bail conditions, you need to contact the police. An additional charge for breaching the bail conditions can be laid against the accused.
The accused will make many court appearances throughout the judicial process. Some of these court dates will be referred to as a “Set Date”. You are not required to attend these court dates. These dates are routine preparation dates for the lawyers.
You will only have to attend court if there is a preliminary hearing or a trial.
Do police always lay charges?
Sometimes the police decide not to lay a charge. This does not mean that the police do not believe you or that the sexual assault did not happen. It may mean that there is not enough evidence to prove a criminal charge in court. If this does occur, the investigators can tell you of other options available to you.
The decision to lay a charge rests with the police. If, based on reasonable grounds, the police believe a person has committed a crime, they may lay a charge. They must consider all evidence against the accused, witness statements, case law, burden of proof and other variables.
When the police lay a charge, they complete an information package describing all the evidence and deliver a package to the Crown attorney. The accused person or, more often, the accused person's lawyer, also receives a copy of the information package. The court receives a list of charges against the accused person from the police.
Deciding whether to prosecute
The Crown attorney is responsible for deciding whether to proceed with charges against an accused person. He or she is required to prosecute cases fairly and treat all parties in the case, including victims, witnesses and the accused, in a fair manner. He or she must also consider the public interest in making a decision. The Crown attorney must answer two very important questions:
- Is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?
- Is it in the public interest to proceed?
If the answer to both of these questions is yes, the Crown attorney will prosecute. If the answer to either or both of these questions is no, the Crown attorney will not prosecute. In this way, the Crown attorney exercises prosecutorial discretion. Another element of this discretion is that the Crown attorney may decide that it is not beneficial to proceed with all the charges against the accused. In that case, some of the charges may be dropped.
How long does the court process take?
Depending on the case, it might take between a few months to a couple of years. This long wait may be difficult for you. It is important to get support during this time. Contact the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre for information and access to support services.
What is a preliminary hearing?
A preliminary hearing is a mini trial in front of a Judge. It is not required in every case but it is very common when sexual assault charges are laid. In a preliminary hearing, the Judge will decide if the Crown Attorney has enough evidence for a trial. You will most likely have to testify in a preliminary hearing. Other witnesses may have to testify as well. The accused and their lawyer may also attend and testify.
What is a trial?
The Crown Attorney and the accused’s lawyer will ask you and other witnesses what happened before, during and after the sexual assault. At the end of the trial, the Judge will make a decision.
It is important to remember that if the Judge decides the accused is not guilty, this does not mean you or the other witnesses were not believed. If the accused is found not guilty, the accused is free to go. This is called an acquittal. If the accused is found guilty, the Judge will choose from a range of sentences.
At the beginning of the trial, the accused will plead “guilty” or “not guilty” to the sexual assault. A plea of “guilty” means the accused admits to the crime. In these cases, there will not be a trial and you will not have to testify. The Judge will listen to the facts of the case, find the accused guilty, and decide the punishment to be imposed.
A plea of “not guilty” means the accused does not admit to the crime. The accused will then request a trial before a Judge alone or before a Judge and Jury. In these cases, you will have to attend court to testify at the trial.
Will I have to testify in court?
If the accused chooses to plead not guilty, you will most likely be required to testify at the preliminary hearing and at the trial.
Once the judge or jury has considered all the evidence, three results are possible: guilty, not guilty or, in the case of a jury trial, a hung jury. A hung jury means the jury was not able to reach a unanimous decision and jury members do not believe one can be reached. In this case, a judge may order a new trial with a new jury or without a jury.
There is also the possibility that charges may be “stayed” or “withdrawn”. If the judge or jury find the accused not guilty, the accused is free to go and cannot be tried again on the same charge, unless the Crown attorney appeals and the appeal court orders a new trial. If the accused is found guilty, the judge may sentence the accused immediately or set a later date for sentencing.
The judge decides the sentence. In making the decision, an independent assessment of the background of the case or a pre-sentence report may be asked for by the judge. The Crown attorney and defence lawyer may make sentencing recommendations. The judge considers these recommendations but it is the judge who makes the final decision on the sentence.
The offender serves their time in the community. The offender will be supervised by, and must visit with, a probation officer. The offender usually has rules to follow that are listed on the probation order. These rules, known as conditions, may include abstaining from alcohol, staying away from certain areas or people, to attend counselling, to seek or maintain employment and to obey a curfew. A Probation Order cannot last more than three years.
If the offender violates any one of the conditions of probation, they may be arrested and charged with a new offence of “Breach of Probation”.
Suspended sentence with probation
A Judge may choose to delay or “suspend” giving a sentence to the offender. The Judge may then release the offender on a probation order. The offender does not serve any jail time but is under the supervision of a probation officer.
A Judge may use this option to see how the offender complies with their probation. This allows the Judge to decide on a more serious penalty or to suspend the sentence until the probation period is complete.
When a Judge orders a sentence of 90 days or less, the offender may have to go to jail on weekends only. This allows the offender to go to work or school, care for children, or manage any health concerns. This sentence always comes with a probation order. The offender must abide by the probation order when they are not in jail.
The offender may go to jail. The Judge can also order a “No Contact Order” as part of the sentence. This means the offender cannot contact you from jail.
If the sentence is less than two years, the offender is sent to a “Provincial Jail”. A probation order may also be given to start when the offender gets out of jail.
If the sentence is two years or more, the offender will be sent to “Federal Prison”. There are minimum, medium and maximum-security prisons. The security level is determined by the risk the offender poses within the prison. It does not mean the sexual assault was more or less serious.
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