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Instances of sexual abuse can be addressed legally in the civil and criminal systems. Some matters may end up in both. The processes, purposes of, and possible outcomes in each differ.

Criminal matter

A criminal case is pursued by the Crown with the benefit of police investigation.

The goal of the criminal matter is to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused abuser. The burden of proof rests with the Crown to demonstrate that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Until then, the accused is presumed innocent.

In criminal matters, the victim will appear in court as a witness for the Crown, as opposed to a party, and will not necessarily provide instructions as to how the matter is handled or resolved. It does not cost the victim anything for this process to unfold and to reach a conclusion.

A criminal matter can be resolved with a trial or in advance by way of an agreement between the Crown and the accused.

A verdict can result in loss of various freedoms, including imprisonment of a convicted abuser.

Civil matter

A civil sexual abuse case is brought by an individual who has experienced sexual abuse (the Plaintiff) against the assailant and other responsible or vicariously liable parties (the Defendant(s)), represented by a lawyer.

In a civil sexual abuse case, the Plaintiff is required to prove the following, on a balance of probabilities:

  1. That the Defendant committed sexual abuse;
  2. That losses occurred as a result of the abuse; and,
  3. The appropriate quantum of damages to compensate the Plaintiff for their losses.

The Plaintiff(s) will provide instructions to their lawyer as the case proceeds, including with respect to including family members in the proceedings by way of a Family Law Act claim for loss of guidance, care, and companionship as a result of the abuse of their loved one; negotiating a resolution; and/or, deciding to proceed with or to abandon a case.

The goal of a civil lawsuit is to prove that the Defendant or Defendants are responsible to pay monetary damages to the Plaintiff(s) for items including pain and suffering, economic losses, treatment costs, and out of pocket expenses.

A civil matter can be resolved in advance of trial by way of a negotiated settlement or following a trial.

Common features of the criminal and civil systems

While vastly different, the criminal and civil systems have similar features when addressing matters of sexual abuse.

There are no limitation periods to pursue either a criminal case or a civil case in the context of sexual abuse.

Participation in either or both can provide a form of healing or a sense of justice to those who have experienced abuse. Unfortunately, however, involvement in either system can also be re-traumatizing. For this reason, it is critical to seek out support, including in the healthcare system and with family or friends. It is also imperative to retain a lawyer in the civil matter who makes you feel heard; who can direct you to accessible and appropriate community supports; who provides clear and comprehensive explanations about the process and your options; and who, overall, takes a trauma-informed approach. 

If you have experienced sexual abuse, you may be entitled to compensation, even if it happened years ago. Advancing such a claim can be an emotional and complicated process, but you do not have to go through it alone. We offer free, confidential consultations where we will listen to your story, answer your questions, and guide you through your legal options.

Anna Stoll practices with the Siskinds Personal Injury Law department. If you have questions about the information contained within this article or any other personal injury questions, please write to [email protected] or call 519-660-7832.

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