In 2015, the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services launched the #IBelieveYou campaign. The campaign is funded by the province and is meant to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward and report their stories. Campaigns like this have a high social value. But what do they mean for the most important principle in our criminal justice system: the presumption of innocence?
Since it began, the campaign has seen the #IBelieveYou hashtag spread on social media, and “I Believe You” posters hung throughout university campuses, various public spaces, and on occasion, outside courtrooms in the province’s courthouses. The Presumption of Innocence can only operate if the people who are called on to decide cases of sexual assault do so fairly and without bias.
Judges understand this, but what about potential jurors who might be on their way into a courtroom for jury duty and see one of these posters? We all have our own sympathies and biases, but in criminal courts, the people who decide whether someone is guilty or not guilty must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that an accused person committed a sexual assault. It is not enough to choose belief in a complainant’s story over the accused person’s right to be presumed innocent. It is not enough for a jury member to say, “I Believe You” to a sexual assault complainant when faced with a competing story from an accused.
Juries are expected to weigh the evidence presented to them, and above all, to remember that in criminal court, it is the accused that receives the benefit of the doubt, not the complainant.