Saturday, August 15, 2009

Is it the legal system, lawyers and judges or the media and reporters who are sexist?

An item in the Toronto Star presents a variety of perspectives on:

Justice Douglas Cunningham's decision regarding the testimony of MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) trickled out this week in stages. By week's end, it had become a sort of Rorschach Test on women's lib, a la 2009.

The Progressive Conservative MPP had testified in the influence-peddling trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien. In his decision this month dismissing the charges, Cunningham said that he assigned "little weight" to MacLeod's "imprecise" recollections.

Were those who attacked the judge for the sexism of his remarks too quick to react, too eager to separate some choice words from the context of all that was said about the credibility of witnesses in this case?

And then,

A [Stamford CT] hotel being sued by a woman raped at gunpoint in its parking garage is claiming she was careless, negligent and "failed to exercise due care for her own safety and the safety of her children and proper use of her senses and facilities," according to court documents.

The victim's attorneys also argue the hotel has inadvertently identified her to acquaintances by asking them to testify.

The Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa, along with the firms in charge of managing the hotel and its parking garage, made the claim as part of a list of special defenses filed in state Superior Court in Stamford last month. Such defenses allow defendants in civil suits to argue they are not responsible for damages even if the plaintiff's story is true.

Antonia Zerbisias
makes the connection with this case and that of a woman who filed a suit against Carleton University for similar reasons. When I did an internet search about the Stamford case, I found a discussion on this board which was quite illuminating. Although the participants approached the issues from divergent perspectives, all agreed that she had been the target and the victim of a heinous crime. Her assailant was tried, found guilty and is now in prison serving his sentence.

But the civil suits are a different kettle of fish, as both victims are seeking compensation for the harm they suffered. Their lawyers are trying to make a case that their clients would not have been victimized if not for the negligence and/or lack of due diligence on the part of Marriott and Carleton University respectively, in the matter of providing adequate security on their premises.

In response, these two corporations are counter-attacking in order to protect their assets and to avoid paying out thousands of dollars. The tactics deployed by their lawyers is to claim that the victims themselves can be held accountable for their plight, simply because they chose to be in a location where violent sexual predators happened to find them as they prowled for potential victims.

Sad to say, the legal system is based on this type of adversarial confrontation and thus once more, a judge will determine the outcome of these cases, based on the argumentative skills of the lawyers for the parties involved.

This year I will be making a charitable donation to the National Association for Women and the Law. Without feminist law scholars and professional practitioners who dedicate themselves to reforming the legal system, Canada would still have
laws not that different from those being enacted in Afghanistan. The judeo-christian traditions that justified such laws would certainly not outrage groups like the REALwomen and various conservative, rightwing, and fundamentalist religious astro-turf interests who lobbied the Harper government to cut funding to N.A.W.L. in 2006.

How much progress have we made, with respect to values that inform the legal system, since that moment in 1979 when judges of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada concluded that “any inequality between the sexes in this area is not created by legislation but by nature” ?

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