Published In

McGill Law Journal

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Canada; Criminal law; Sexual assault; Mental disability; Evidence; Criminal procedure


When a woman with a mental disability makes a complaint of sexual assault, she must confront a criminal trial process that was not designed in contemplation of her as a witness. The requirements of repeated testimony under oath and the ability to be cross-examined are not always well-suited to the particular needs and capacities of women with mental disabilities. These problems are magnified by the tendency to infantilize women with mental disabilities, thereby diminishing their credibility and depicting them as hypersexual when they engage in any sexual activity. These stereotypes also manifest themselves in the application of evidentiary rules relating to evidence of sexual history and records in the hands of third parties. In this way, the disabilities of these women are not merely physiological in an "objective" sense, but are also constructed by the trial process itself. This article considers how the experiences of women with mental disabilities demand modifications to evidentiary and procedural rules in sexual assault cases in ways that are consistent with the right of the accused to a fair trial. It also uses these experiences to reflect on the purported tension between sexual freedom and protection from violence that is evident in the feminist literature on sexual assault. The authors argue that substantive equality demands greater efforts to ensure the full participation of women with mental disabilities in the criminal trial process.