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Sex assault victims want ability to opt out of publication bans

'Silence is a superpower for predators and pedophiles. That’s how they can continue to do what they’re doing,' says Barrie woman

Having a Barrie judge drop the publication ban on her name was only one step in Brandy Mullen’s journey.

The next step for the Springwater Township woman is to encourage legislators to clarify the law around publication bans to give victims of violence a choice, something she feels she and others didn’t have.

“Publication bans are important … but it’s the paternalistic way that they’re handed out that needs to be addressed,” she says. “Most of the time victims are not informed, never mind whether they want it or not.”

An area man was accused of sexually assaulting her when she was a child and was acquitted last spring. After the trial, Mullen asked the judge to have the publication ban protecting her identity removed so she could tell her story. The judge agreed.

Since then, she’s connected with others who have also sought to have bans removed or agree that they’re not properly applied.

Members of the unnamed group are now circulating a national petition to have the law changed. They say it’s important for victims of assault to have the choice of whether or not they want the protection of a ban. They also seek to simplify the process to have a ban.

Out in Victoria, B.C., Kelly Favro wanted the freedom to tell her own story without the risk of going to jail or being fined. And having the publication ban on her name removed meant that the veil would also be lifted on her attacker.

Fabro’s story goes back to September 2015, when she was sexually assaulted by someone whom she had casually been seeing for six weeks, leading to a conviction the following year.

It wasn’t until December 2020 that Favro learned a publication ban had been imposed on her name and identity.

“I had no idea and I was floored,” Favro says during a phone interview. “I was told the ban was for my protection.”

But she felt that it unfairly protected her perpetrator and his identity.

In British Columbia, she explained, women often refer to Court Services Online, which lists those convicted of criminal and other charges. But her attacker’s name didn’t appear because of the ban on her name.

She was frustrated in her attempts to find more information about these bans and how to get rid of them.

Finally, in June 2021, she appeared before the same judge who had heard the original charge.

"I begged for the right to say my name and share my story,” Favro says.

Nine months ahead of Mullen, who made the same request before a Barrie judge, Favro had success.

Publication bans can be misinterpreted, the women say. 

They point to a court case in Kitchener last spring when another sexual assault victim pleaded guilty to breaking what has been described as a routine publication ban. That woman was fined $2,000 for emailing a transcript of the decision in which her name appears as the victim to her supporters.

That conviction was quickly overturned by an Ontario Superior Court judge after the case became public and made national headlines, sparking outrage.

“Historically, (publication bans) have been put in place in order to reduce stigma,” said Nicole Pietsch, who is with the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres. “Some still find it really helpful to have publication bans, but some do not.”

Pietsch said there has been more discussion in recent years about the merits of aspects the bans. She points to the Kitchener case as an example of how publication bans and their purpose can be misinterpreted and even used against the victim they were intended to protect.

Trauma studies have indicated that being heard can be key to overcoming the traumatic impact of an assault. For some survivors, it's integral to being able to freely talk about the experience.

Longtime local advocate Kelly Redmond said the introduction of bans has helped encourage people to come forward. But they have also prevented victims or survivors of assault from talking about their own case.

“It should actually be optional. I think the petition is excellent, to give people the ability to express what has happened to them and are allowed to talk about their own experience,” said Redmond, supervisor of the Athena's Sexual Assault Counselling & Advocacy Centre in Barrie.

Publication bans continue to play an important role in the criminal prosecution of sexual assault cases, she stressed, but there's a need to recognize that victims would like to be able to choose whether or not to opt out.

Victoria MP Laurel Collins, who is sponsoring the petition, is also exploring ways the legislation could be changed. A private member's bill is one way, but that could be slow and cumbersome and they often die on the order paper, although they are considered a catalyst for discussion.

“The criminal justice system is not created to be the most supportive to sexual violence and I think we need to work collectively to improve the system in so many different ways,” Collins said. “The quickest and most effective way to get legislation changed is if the government tables legislation to fix the Criminal Code.”

Collins, who said she's also a survivor of sexual assault, feels strongly about supporting the women who are sharing their stories and pushing for this change.

Mullen and Favro, who had previously connected online over their common concerns, met last month in Ottawa when they and others attended the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights hearing examining the government’s obligations to victims of crime.

Both believe that the publication bans imposed to protect them shields the perpetrator’s identity.

After Favro had her ban lifted, other women scanning B.C.’s  Court Services Online lists could finally see the name of the man convicted of attacking her.

“Silence is a superpower for predators and pedophiles,” Mullen said. “That’s how they can continue to do what they’re doing.”

Mullen said the publication ban was an immediate concern that the women feel they have a chance of changing. But they believe there are other faults that they experienced while navigating the criminal system that they say warrant attention that unites them and propels them to advocate for other changes.