Impervious to Change? A Mixed Methods Analysis of Criminal Sexual Assault Complaint Attrition Rates

Research Team

Dr. Jane Ursel (research affiliate)
Prof. Karen Busby (research affiliate)
Prof. David Ireland
Dr. Marlyn Bennett (research affiliate)


Centre for Human Rights Research


Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata
Klinic Community Health

Canada’s criminal sexual assault laws were repeatedly revised in the 1980s and 1990s to temper the impact of discriminatory thinking on processes used and principles applied. For more than two decades, these laws have provided that affirmative consent for sexual contact is required, sexual history evidence is rarely relevant, access to personal records is limited, a complainant’s testimony does not need to be corroborated, resistance is unnecessary, husbands can be charged with sexually assaulting their wives and testimonial aids are available. In consequence, the process should be easier on complainants and convictions should be easier to obtain. Yet recent research shows that only one out of 20 people who are sexually assaulted report the assault to the police and only one out of 10 of these complaints will result in a conviction. Demands for change escalated following the Globe and Mail‘s 2017 Unfounded series by Robyn Doolittle, which brought into focus the inadequacy of police responses, and the rise of the #MeToo movement that sprang up later that same year. Complainants and others want to know why the system is not working and what can be done to change it.

Our overarching goal in this research project is to understand why attrition rates in sexual assault cases have been impervious to change even in the face of comprehensive law reform and to investigate concrete ways to decrease attrition rates. We will achieve this goal by asking two research questions. First, what can we learn about how resistance to sexual assault law reform operates by examining and discerning patterns in everyday decision-making by police, Crown attorneys and judges? Second, does social pressure, such as the Unfounded series and the #MeToo movement, result in beneficial changes to decision-making patterns?

We will answer these two research questions by undertaking a comprehensive review from first report to final disposition of all sexual assault complaints initiated 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 with the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS). We will review all WPS and Crown files and the transcripts or recordings of all hearings flowing from these complaints. In addition to examining these files and transcripts, we will interview Crown attorneys to obtain their insights on attrition rates. Information on the processing of all cases through the system will identify links between individual case-by-case decisions and trends in attrition. By examining complaint attrition patterns before (2015, 2016) and after (2018, 2019) the unusual events of 2017, we have a unique opportunity to examine differences, if any, in the day-to-day processing of cases as a result of social pressure.

Research results will help sexual assault survivors make more fully informed decisions about whether to make police reports. Survivors’ allies will be better positioned to advocate for meaningful and effective change. Police, Crown attorneys and judges will gain insight into patterns in their decision-making, which should lead to reflection and dialogue on how the layers of individual decisions often add up to barriers rather than pathways to justice. Ministers of Justice and the Status of Women and other key policy makers will get valuable information to increase policy-making capacity. Researchers will have access to the instruments we create to analyze data and to some of the data (hearing transcripts) we collect. The general public will better understand how the system operates and what can be done to reduce the attrition rate.

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

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