There is a substantial gap in our knowledge about legal responses to sexual assault. Take, for example, the most high-profile legal response: the sexual assault criminal trial. We do not know:
What percentage of cases result in unreported decisions?
How frequently are complainants legally compelled to participate in the process?
How common are applications to introduce evidence of a complainant’s prior sexual history or to obtain her medical or counselling records?
Do Crown Attorneys regularly request that the testimonial aids (such as a support person or the ability to testify from behind a screen) available to complainants be granted by the court?
Are there demographic patterns regarding who serves the system as complainants (ie are they disproportionately indigenous, poor, or young?)
Because we don’t know the answer to any of these, and many other, questions, steps that are being taken by governments, lawyers, sexual assault centres, and other researchers who are committed to reducing sexual violence by enhancing or making adjustments to the criminal law process are likely ineffective.
If the knowledge gaps are large for sexual assault criminal trials, there is almost no current research into other legal processes. For example, Canadian research on civil law trials for sexual battery is very dated. There is almost no Canadian research on the processes or effectiveness of processes adopted by institutions like universities or professional organizations (e.g. the police, doctors, sports organizations, or military). And the proliferation of pilot projects (for example, the state funded provision of independent legal advice to complainants in some provinces or the creation of specialized Crown Attorneys) have been undertaken without a planned evaluation or research component.
Answering these questions requires large-scale, interdisciplinary, comprehensive, empirically-based research. This type of research requires conducting interviews, ordering trial transcripts, and monitoring court and administrative cases. It requires bringing together experts from across the country.