July 25, 2024

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Free legal advice on sexual assault launched by B.C. non-profit

Free legal advice on sexual assault launched by B.C. non-profit

The not-for-profit Community Legal Assistance Society has officially launched the new program

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A free and confidential legal service is now being offered to people who have been sexually assaulted in B.C.

The not-for-profit Community Legal Assistance Society officially launched the program Tuesday, which offers three hours of legal advice to people regardless of age, gender or income, or whether they have reported the assault to police.

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With funding from the federal government, Jennifer Khor, the supervising lawyer and project manager, said the Stand Informed project aims to fill a “gaping hole” on the under-reporting of sex assaults by helping an “underserved” group better understand their legal options.

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Khor said Tuesday that statistics show 37 per cent of women over the age of 15 have experienced sexual assault in B.C., but less than nine per cent of victims seek support from victim services.

“Because there’s such a large number of unreported cases of sexual assaults, we hope that we can meet the demand, but we do hope people come forward,” she said.

Khor said there are many reasons people may not report a sexual assault, including mistrust of police or because they’re unfamiliar with the legal system, and this project aims to address those challenges.

“People can get advice on what their legal options are, they can really understand if what they experienced is sexual assault if they’re not sure and, hopefully, we’ll support them to make the best decision for themselves as well as helping to connect them with other resources that might provide support.”

The idea for the three-year pilot program began when an influx of calls came in about sexual assaults to a free service they offer on workplace harassment, she said.

“There wasn’t really any (free) accessible legal advice service to send them,” she said.

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Though the Stand Informed project officially launched Tuesday, Khor said it was “soft launched” a few weeks ago and has already taken on clients. But, she said, it’s too soon to gauge the demand.

“We recognize that sexual assault can happen to anyone, and people are encouraged to come forward to seek the confidential advice.”

She said similar projects are operating in Ontario and Nova Scotia, but a notable difference is that the B.C. service is also being offered to minors.

“In British Columbia, there’s an exclusion for people seeking advice from a lawyer from having to report to the ministry so that someone can get advice on what to do,” she said.

Kelli Paddon, parliamentary secretary for gender equity, said in a news release that B.C. residents who experience gender-based violence should be able to access support wherever and whenever they need it.

“This program will give survivors of sexual assault the opportunity for free, accessible legal advice during a time when they may need it most, making a critical difference for many women, girls and gender diverse people across B.C.,” Paddon said.

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