HALIFAX - The public outcry surrounding the acquittal of a Halifax cab driver accused of sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman is proof sexual-violence education is having an effect, a Nova Scotia legislature committee was told Tuesday.
Sarah Kay Granke, who helps coordinate the province's sexual assault strategy, said the response and protests sparked by the court decision show society is changing.
"The response and the outcry and the outrage we have seen, to me is an indication of some societal change because 10 or 15 years ago that would not have happened in the same kind of way," said Granke.
Witnesses testifying on the province's sexual assault strategy Tuesday were asked to address the "elephant in the room" by Progressive Conservative committee member Alfie MacLeod.
Stephanie MacInnis-Langley, of the Nova Scotia Council on the Status of Women, said the Halifax case and others from across the country have led to a public discussion that is helpful in dealing with sexual violence issues.
"I have to say that in 2017 we're in a better place than we were in 2015 and 2016 because the discussions are on the table and they are at a national table," said MacInnis-Langley. "We have a prime minister in fact who has stood on the national stage and spoke to the issue of sexual violence."
She said public shows of support like the protest organized in front of Halifax City Hall on Tuesday are important for people dealing with sexual assault because they are often disappointed with the outcome of their court cases.
MacInnis-Langley said the criminal code doesn't clearly define consent, leaving it open to legal interpretation — and she hopes increased public pressure will lead to clarification from Supreme Court of Canada.
"It's a very murky area and it needs continual discussion," she said.
MacInnis-Langley said she worried court rulings can act as a deterrent to people coming forward to report sexual assaults.
"The more we offer supports to victims of sexual violence ... they will feel safe in coming forward," she said.
The committee was told that sexual assault is significantly under-reported in Nova Scotia, as elsewhere.
It was told there were 591 sexual assaults reported to police in 2014, higher than the national average.
The Crown said Tuesday it is appealing the acquittal of Halifax cab driver Bassam Al-Rawi, who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman who was found intoxicated, unconscious and partially naked in his car.
Denise Smith, deputy director of the province's Public Prosecution Service, said Judge Gregory Lenehan made multiple legal mistakes when he found the 40-year-old not guilty last week.
The ruling has prompted much debate over how the courts handle sensitive cases.
On Monday, however, the Nova Scotia Criminal Lawyers Association issued a statement saying criticism of Lenehan's "partiality, competence, and his qualifications ... is unfounded and undermines the discussion that is needed to address the prevention of sexual assault."