R. v. Ryan: Canada's criminal justice system fails and women pay

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The Supreme Court of Canada heard the latest appeal in R. v Ryan yesterday. In all ways but one, this case is very typical.

A woman is beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted, and threatened with guns for fifteen years by her husband. When she asks for a divorce and takes steps to leave him, he threatens to kill her and their daughter and describes in detail how he will hide their bodies. He begins stalking her, calling her repeatedly, following her in his car, and showing up at the school where she worked as a teacher. She flees her home, and tries to surround herself with family and friends. She calls the police, 911, and police victim services for help 21 times, but the police refuse to investigate the violence she reports and brush off her fears for her and her daughter's lives. They tell her that this is a "civil matter" and there's nothing they can do. She becomes desperate as her repeated attempts to ensure her and her daughter's safety fail.

If the end to this story had been that she waited in terror until he murdered her and their daughter, this story would have been like the hundreds of others we have heard before. Instead, she tried to hire someone to kill her husband. The person she tried to hire was an undercover police officer. She was charged with counselling to commit murder.

Justice system fails

As the trial judge commented, "it seems somewhat ironic the system which had failed to address the issues that Ms. Ryan had with her husband was only too eager to come to her aid and provide a solution when it would potentially result in her committing a criminal offence." Both the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and Court of Appeal found that Ms. Ryan had no other reasonable option to save her and her daughter's life, and acquitted her on the basis that she was acting under duress. The Crown chose to appeal her acquittal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which lead to yesterday's hearing.

The Crown is prosecuting Ms. Ryan with a vengeance. At every step of the criminal justice system, the Crown has chosen to prolong Ms. Ryan's ordeal, by proceeding with a prosecution to trial, by appealing the trial decision and by appealing the provincial court of appeal decision.

The Crown claims that she wasn't really in danger because she did not go to the hospital every time she was assaulted to report her injuries, she had a good job, and she had left her husband. As interveners in the case, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, point out, the Crown's arguments rely on outdated and inaccurate stereotypes about how to be a "real" battered woman. The Crown's claims also ignore the fact that statistically, women are in more danger when they separate from abusive men.

Ms. Ryan's treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system is appalling. The Nova Scotia police force has no excuse for failing to respond appropriately to Mr. Ryan's violence. The Nova Scotia Crown has no reason to be going to such lengths to prosecute her.

Preventable deaths

The story of violent men killing their female partners, and sometimes their children and themselves, following inadequate policing is not a novel or unique one. In Canada, one woman is killed every six days by her current or former male intimate partner. These murders are not mysterious or unexpected. They are predictable and, more importantly, preventable.

Feminist anti-violence workers in rape crisis centres and transition houses have long pointed out the danger that women are in when they leave abusive men, and the lethal consequences of the state's failure to police and prosecute violence against women.

Research of the numerous femicides in Canada has resulted in the development of clear risk assessment tools for criminal justice personnel to use. Had the tools been used according to policy, the Nova Scotia police department's own risk of spousal homicide assessment tools would have revealed that Ms. Ryan was at an extraordinarily high risk of being killed.

All of the warning signs for an impending attack were present: the couple had separated, he had a history of physical and sexual violence, he had strangled her in the past, he had access to guns, he had threatened to kill her, he was obsessive and controlling, and he was stalking her. Ms. Ryan's judgment that she and her daughter were in mortal danger was well founded and accurate. The obvious implication of the police and Crown's behaviour in this case is that abused women and their children should be prepared to die, rather than use force to protect themselves.

Police misconduct should be investigated

Rather than putting criminal justice system resources into prosecuting this woman, there should be a disciplinary investigation into the misconduct of the police officers who failed to enforce the law and follow their own policies. The police must be held responsible for their repeated and willful refusal to police male violence against women.

In addition, charges should be laid against Mr. Ryan for any of the numerous physical assaults, sexual assaults, and death threats he inflicted on Ms. Ryan and their daughter.

If the criminal justice system continues to ignore his violence, it sends a message to men that they can be violent to women with impunity.

Finally, I hope that the Supreme Court of Canada will do justice by upholding the acquittal of Ms. Ryan.


Laura Johnston is a radical feminist activist, a law student and a former rape crisis worker.

All the statistical facts referred to in this article were taken from Statistics Canada reports.

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