André Pratte: Conditional discharge for sexual assault shatters public confidence in justice system


The Quebec Court of Appeal must overturn the outrageous sentence that caused such an outcry

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The decision of an inexperienced Trois-Rivières judge to conditionally release a man who pleaded guilty to a charge of sexual assault caused a wave of anger and disbelief in the population last week in Quebec. If this erroneous judgment on sentencing is not overturned by the province’s Court of Appeal, the confidence of Quebeckers in the judicial system risks suffering irreparable harm.

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A warning to readers: to understand the outrage over this decision, you need to know exactly what happened. Therefore, although this may shock many people, I must briefly describe the crime.

At the end of an evening where significant amounts of alcohol were consumed, a woman fell asleep in her guest’s room. She was awakened by the flash of a cell phone camera. A man who attended the party took pictures as he penetrated her vagina with his fingers and touched her breasts.

What should be the penalty for such an act?

What should be the penalty for such an act?

The judge, the Honorable Matthieu Poliquin, ruled that the attacker, a young engineer named Simon Houle, should be released on conditions. Among the reasons for this lenient sentence is that the attack “went quickly” and that the young man’s career would be hampered by a criminal record.

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“Come on, was this decision written in 1952?” quips one of the best Quebec columnists, Isabelle Hachey, in La Presse. “The worst part is that it’s not the work of a dinosaur. No, this judgment was rendered by Matthieu Poliquin, who was appointed to the court… in September 2021.”

It must be said that although Houle avoided prison, the court imposed strict conditions, for example that his name and personal information be entered and kept in the National Sex Offender Registry for a period of 20 years.

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I was born into a family with the law in its genes; lawyers and judges from generation to generation. Although, as a journalist, I was the black sheep of the family, I inherited from my past a deep respect for the law and the justice system. I firmly believe that a judge who has all the evidence before him is always in a better position to decide whether the accused is guilty or not, and what the sentence should be, than the commentators and the public.

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When I heard about Judge Poliquin’s sentencing decision in Houle, I immediately downloaded it. I wanted to see for myself. My first impression when I read it was that it was a bad decision but didn’t deserve such a storm. More nuance was needed, I thought.

I was wrong. Judge Poliquin was wrong. A conditional discharge is simply not an acceptable sentence for such serious crimes, with long-term consequences for the victim, as sexual assault.

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In criminal court, a good judge must not only know the law, he must be a good judge of character. In this specific case, Justice Poliquin failed miserably. Among the factors that weighed in on his decision to let Houle go were “the low risk of reoffending” and his “convincing rehabilitation.” Well, what do you know! A week after being released, the engineer found himself in a hotel in Cuba, where he allegedly grabbed a woman’s buttocks. According to victim account, she reacted quickly, kicked him in the leg and angrily protested. The man would have defended himself by saying that it was not his fault, that “it was his hand that did it”.

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It was only after her return to Canada that Vicky Vachon realized that the man she only knew as “Simon” was actually Simon Houle, the engineer who was at the center of this huge controversy in Quebec.

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Until now, in our justice system, it could be considered acceptable for the culprit in a sexual assault case to avoid a prison sentence. The question is, given everything we now know about the trauma that sexual assault inflicts on victims, should the law change? And if so, how should this happen?

One possible way is to amend the Criminal Code so that conditional discharges are no longer available to people convicted of this kind of crime. I am of the opinion that, in general, Parliament should allow judges as much discretion as possible. As I explained above, they listen to all proceedings; they see and hear the witnesses; they know the law and case law. This principle has served justice well over the years.

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The other way in which the law could evolve, according to some experts, is the slow and natural adjustment of sentences to the mores of the day. Canadians are now more aware of the pervasiveness and intolerability of sexual assault. This means that in 2022, the public will not tolerate a man who commits such an act avoiding prison simply because a criminal record could harm his career.

Of course, as Judge Poliquin notes, “at all times the judge must be guided by the rule of law and not by public outcry.” I agree. However, it must also take into account the need to maintain public confidence in the justice system. This is where his sentencing decision fails dramatically. This is the serious error that the Court of Appeal must remedy with firmness and urgency.

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• Email: [email protected]

André Pratte is Director of Navigator and Senior Fellow of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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