Ghomeshi-Cosby Accusations Highlight Differences Between Canada-US Sex Assault Laws

by John McKiggan

Jian Ghomeshi criminal charges

There are few Canadians that haven’t heard about the sexual assault allegations being made against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. Two weeks ago Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of physical assault. To date nine women have come forward stating they were victims of sexual or physical assault by Ghomeshi. Some of the allegations date back a decade or more.

Bill Cosby facing sex assault allegations but no criminal charges

South of the border about 20 women have come forward claiming that they were sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby.

Cosby has faced allegation of sexual assault in the past. In 2005 a Canadian woman told Canadian Police she had visited Cosby at his Philadelphia mansion. Cosby gave her medication which she said made her dizzy and pass out. She claimed when she woke up her bra was undone and her clothes were in disarray. At the time, Police found “insufficient credible and admissible evidence” to support criminal charges.

This week prosecutors in California decided not to lay criminal charges against Cosby based on allegations he he sexually assaulted a 15 year old girl.

So why is Jian Ghomeshi facing criminal charges in Canada while Bill Cosby is unlikely to face charges anywhere in the United States?

These two cases highlight the difference in the laws (both criminal and civil) relating to sexual assault.

American Statue of Limitations on criminal charges

A “Statute of Limitation” is a law that sets a time limit on how much time one has to file a law suit or press criminal charges.

In the United States there are statutes of limitations for most criminal charges. In other words, if a sexual assault victim does not swear out a criminal complaint within a certain period of time after the assault the ability to lay criminal charges is barred.

For example, under Nevada law sexual assault victims must lay a charge within 4 years of the assault. In New York sexual assault charges must be laid within 5 years of the assault. In California, where the most recent allegations arise, the time limit for felony sex crimes in 1974 was 3 years from the date of the offence.

In other words, if the victim was 15 years old, she had to go to police to lay charges before she turned 18 years old.

Canada has no statute of limitations on serious criminal charges.

On the other hand, in Canada, there is no time limit for filing charges of a serious criminal nature. So charges of serious sexual assault have no statute of limitations.

As a result, Ghomeshi is now facing sexual assault charges for acts alleged to have happened almost ten years ago.

Difference for civil suits for compensation

There is also a big difference in the laws relating to civil suits for compensation for harms suffered as a result of sexual assault.

In the United States, like criminal charges, civil law suits for sexual assault have specific and sometimes very short statutes of limitations. So if a sexual assault victim wants to pursue their abuser (or the institution that employed the abuser) for compensation they are not able to do so unless they bring forward their claim within a few years of the assault.

Time limits on claims unfair to abuse survivors

This can be problematic for many victims. For people who have been subjected to severe sexual assault the psychological consequences can be devastating. Sexual assault victims may simply be psychologically incapable of filing a civil suit as a result of the harm they suffered because of the sexual assault.

Supreme Court of Canada changed the rules for abuse survivors

In Canada, the laws relating to filing sexual abuse compensation claims changed dramatically as a result of a 1992 court decision known as M(K) v. M(H).

In that case the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the time limit for filing a civil suit did not begin to run until the sexual assault victim discovered the connection between the assault and the harms they experienced later in life.

The Supreme Court of Canada and the Canadian Criminal Code recognize that survivors of sexual assault can feel a paralyzing sense of shame and embarrassment. Sometimes the assaults create such a powerful lack of trust that they are fearful of going to the police or talking to a lawyer.

In many cases survivors of sexual abuse suffer serious psychological problems that effectively disable them. Survivors may not realize that the problems they are suffering later in life (alcoholism, depression, problems with interpersonal relationships, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress) are connected to sexual assaults they experienced earlier in their life.

Since the M(K) v. M(H) case, most provinces in Canada have changed their Limitations of Actions Acts to allow victims to sue for compensation for sexual abuse years (and sometimes decades) after the assault occurred.

Most provinces have no limitation period for sexual assault claims. Some provinces apply the “discoverability rule” as described in the M(K) v. M(H) case.

Nova Scotia to change Statute of Limitations for sexual assault claims

Nova Scotia is currently looking at changing its Limitations of Action Act to eliminate all limitation periods for sexual assault compensation claims.

As an advocate for surviors of childhood sexual abuse I fully support the proposed changes to Nova Scotia’s Limitation of Actions Act. But the changes may not go far enough.

Some survivors want the proposed legislation to be made retroactive.

The proposed limitation period, when it is proclaimed into effect, will apply to anyone who brings forward a claim after the new law is in place.

But what about sexual abuse survivors who have already come forward and may have had their claims statute barred?

If the province of Nova Scotia is recognizing that there shouldn’t be a time limit on when sexual abuse survivors can file their claim, shouldn’t that apply to all sexual abuse survivors?

What do you think?

Breaking the Silence

Many survivors suffer in silence thinking that they are the only one who was victimized by their abuser. In many cases when one survivor has the courage to break their silence and come forward to lay criminal chargers or file a civil suit it sheds light on the abusers activities and other victims, who thought they were alone, take courage and are able to come forward to seek accountability.

Sexual assault survivors often carry a crushing guilt throughout their lives blaming themselves for what happened to them. Reaching out to talk to someone; be it a friend, a family member, a health care professional, a police officer, or a lawyer, is for many survivors the first and hardest step in their healing journey.

Want More information?

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For almost 25 years I have dedicated my practice to representing survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I wrote Breaking the Silence: The Survivor’s Guide to Sexual Abuse Claims so that abuse survivors and their families can get good solid information about their legal options, privately and confidentially.

If you would like a copy of Breaking the Silence, you can buy a copy of the book on Amazon.com (all profits are donated to charity) or you can receive a free copy of the book by contacting me through this blog or by calling toll free in Atlantic Canada 1-866-974-8281.

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