Reporting Sexual Abuse: Understanding the Criminal and Civil Processes

November 14, 2023

By: Chelsea Hishon

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Sexual abuse is a deeply distressing and traumatic experience for survivors, leaving them uncertain about the path to justice. The distinction between the criminal and civil processes can be confusing, leading survivors to wonder which route to take.

Criminal vs. Civil Process

The criminal process begins when a victim reports the assault to the police. If charges are laid after an investigation, the Crown Attorney's Office manages the prosecution. A guilty verdict can result in penalties like imprisonment. In this process, the victim is known as the "complainant" and serves as a witness but not a party to the proceedings. The perpetrator is referred to as the “accused”.

The civil process for sexual assault victims involves filing a lawsuit to seek financial compensation from the perpetrator and potentially other responsible institutions. This process primarily addresses the survivor's right to compensation, while the criminal process focuses on holding the perpetrator accountable. In the civil system, the victim is known as the “plaintiff” and the perpetrator is referred to as the “defendant”.

Why Report to the Police First?

It's generally recommended that victims interested in reporting their assault to the police do so before pursuing a lawsuit for the following reasons:

1. Preservation of Evidence: Reporting sexual abuse promptly ensures the preservation of crucial evidence. Specialized law enforcement units handle sexual assault cases, collecting physical evidence, interviewing witnesses, and documenting the survivor's account. This evidence can be essential for a subsequent lawsuit if one is pursued.

2. Protection for Others: Reporting sexual abuse plays a vital role in safeguarding others from potential harm. Perpetrators may have multiple victims, and reporting can lead to their identification and apprehension, preventing further victimization.

3. Maintaining Credibility: Credibility is often questioned in sexual assault cases. Filing a lawsuit before or during criminal proceedings may allow the accused to argue that the allegations are false and financially motivated. This risk is minimized if the victim waits until after criminal proceedings conclude before filing a lawsuit.

4. Disclosure of Personal Records: In a lawsuit, the defendants have the right to disclosure of the victim's personal records, but this right doesn't exist in criminal proceedings. While the accused in a criminal case can apply for disclosure of personal records, meeting the required test is challenging. Filing a lawsuit before or during criminal proceedings permits the accused access to these records, allowing the accused to potentially use the documents to their advantage in the criminal proceedings.

5. Simplifying the Civil Process: The conviction from a criminal proceeding can be used to establish liability of the defendant in the civil proceedings. This means the victim doesn't need to prove guilt again, and the civil process focuses on demonstrating damages and determining the appropriate amount of compensation. This simplification can expedite the resolution of the case.

It's important to note that reporting abuse to the police is not a prerequisite for filing a civil lawsuit. However, if a victim is contemplating reporting the abuse, it's advisable to do so before pursuing a civil suit.

In the face of such challenging decisions, the process can be overwhelming. A lawyer specializing in representing sexual abuse victims, like those at Beckett, can help and provide guidance. They can explain the process, address questions, and lend a supportive ear. We are here to assist and guide survivors through the complex journey to justice and healing

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