Sunira Chaudhri: Where Ghomeshi case got it wrong, Soulpepper case gets it right
By: Sunira Chaudhri
It is not often that one applauds the media.
But as I walked into my law firm’s office Thursday and watched multiple camera crews cram themselves into our boardroom to live broadcast the alleged sexual harassment stories of four former employees of Soulpepper Theatre, I couldn’t help but think hats off to the media indeed.
Four women, represented by Alexi Wood and Jennifer Saville from St. Lawrence Barristers and my colleague Tatha Swann from Levitt LLP, have launched statements of claim alleging they were each a victim of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of Albert Schultz, artistic director of the often heralded Soulpepper Theatre.
These women told stories of unwanted touching and groping, referring to Schultz as a “serial sexual predator.” He was described as above reproach, never reprimanded or disciplined by the theatre. Their claims describe Schultz’s sexual harassment and assault as Soulpepper’s “best known secret.”
These women did not go to the police and opted to sue in civil court, a masterstroke, given the bungled Jian Ghomeshi case not long ago. The ex-CBC personality’s trial was a clinic on the ugly underbelly of litigating sexual harassment cases.
The criminal process leaves unrepresented victims exposed to navigate potentially incriminating witness statements and police investigations. If handled incorrectly, a legitimate complaint to police can result in charges never being laid. A case could end before it even starts; not so with a compelling statement of claim like those filed against Soulpepper and Schultz.
On the approach, Swann had this to say: “At this time, our clients have chosen to pursue civil claims. Through this process they have lawyers dedicated to putting forth their narratives in their own words. This gives them back the control that Albert and Soulpepper took away.”
A civil case allows plaintiffs to control the narrative through their statements of claim. More importantly, plaintiffs can have their alleged abuser cross-examined by their lawyer well in advance of a civil trial to collect admissions, documentary evidence and impeach the credibility of the abuser.
It is a powerful tool that crushes cases before they ever get to trial. Not only that, plaintiffs sue for money damages and must prove their allegations on the balance of probability, not the higher burden of beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal case.
While Schultz may not face jail time, the reputational impact of the civil claim, including Thursday’s press conference, is undoubtedly worse as the #metoo movement remains in full swing. Schultz has maintained he will “vehemently defend himself” against these claims as none of these allegations have been proven in court but he officially resigned as artistic director of the Soulpepper Theatre Company effective immediately on Thursday.
The #metoo movement has resulted in the galvanizing of women — and some men — workers everywhere to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment at the hands of their employers. The Soulpepper plaintiffs banding together is a personification of the movement right in our own backyard.
Undoubtedly more women will consider coming forward to join the voices that have already started off the biggest sexual harassment case of 2018. Schultz should brace for impact.