“Testifying that I’d been sexually assaulted took all my strength. When the case was thrown out due to courtroom delays, it broke me”

“Testifying that I’d been sexually assaulted took all my strength. When the case was thrown out due to courtroom delays, it broke me”

Emily Ager is one of several complainants in criminal trials whose cases have been dismissed because of staffing shortages and delays at Toronto’s new $956-million courthouse

Emily Ager, the victim of an alleged sexual assault, sits on a couch beside a window. She's looking directly into the camera. In March, the province amalgamated six of Toronto’s criminal courts into a new $956-million courthouse on Armoury Street. While the Ontario government promised that the mammoth new building would be more efficient than its predecessors, it was quickly obvious that implementation was not going according to plan. Mere weeks after trials began, attorneys and judges warned that dire staffing shortages and dozens of courtroom closures were adding to an already massive pile of delayed cases. They had good reason to sound the alarm: if a case is delayed by more than 18 months, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that it must be tossed out for violating the accused person’s constitutional right to a timely trial. While 18 months may seem like a substantial window, experts see breaching that time frame as less of a risk than an inevitability. “More cases will be thrown out,” predicted Betty Vavougios, head of the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association, in April. “It’s sad, and it was foreseeable.”

The province has since spent $6 million in additional funding, and as of September, it claims that the courthouse’s problems have been resolved. But, for Emily Ager, the damage was already done. Ager, the victim of an alleged sexual assault, is one of several complainants in criminal trials whose cases were dismissed due to courthouse delays. Here, she tells us how it happened.

In January 2022, I invited a girlfriend from work over to my place for drinks. While she was over, we posted photos of ourselves on Snapchat, and a volunteer from our work responded. We invited him to meet up with us at my apartment. My friend had been to my place before, but this was the first time our male co-worker would be coming over. He arrived just after midnight, and we all chatted and drank together until I was hit by a wave of exhaustion around 2 a.m. At this point, my memory is a bit hazy, but I distinctly remember leaving my living room alone, grabbing a package of Crispy Minis from the cupboard and heading to bed.

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I woke up four hours later. My friend had left, and my male co-worker was on top of me and inside of me. I was in a lot of pain, and my whole body froze. I couldn’t understand what was happening—I honestly thought it might be a nightmare. This was my home, and he was a person I knew and trusted. I must have either dissociated or fallen back asleep, because the next thing I remember is waking up again and, in a clearer state of mind, seeing my co-worker lying in bed beside me, sleeping.

I ran to the bathroom, terrified, and locked the door. I turned on the shower and sat on the edge of the tub, paralyzed as the hot water hit me. I texted a close friend and told her what happened. She then reached out to my mom, who quickly called me. Distressed, I told her that I was thinking about taking my life, but I didn’t immediately tell her that I had been assaulted—I was still processing it. Once I did, she called the police. Eventually, I heard the loud thud of my wooden front door slamming shut. He’d left.

When I walked out of the bathroom and saw my bedroom door, I knew I couldn’t go back in there. Instinctively, I felt that it was no longer safe. Instead, I went into the living room and waited on the couch. I remember just staring blankly at the wall, frozen in place. When the police finally knocked on my door, it felt thunderous. I considered ignoring them. I was scared—I didn’t know if I’d ever feel comfortable letting someone into my home again. But, when I heard them calling out my name, I managed to drag my body off the couch and let them in.

Two officers, a man and a woman, walked in and introduced themselves. Immediately, the woman launched into a series of rapid-fire questions. Were you raped? How did this happen? How much were you drinking? I wasn’t ready to answer these yet. At the time, I was working as a counsellor, and my trauma-informed training had taught me to go at the pace of the traumatized individual. I told them I needed a moment. While the female officer alternated between pacing around my living room and towering over me, the other officer sat at the kitchen table, giving me some space. He said that this must be difficult for me. I sat silently for a while, numb and shell-shocked.

After paramedics arrived and took my vitals, one of the officers recommended that I get a rape kit done at Women’s College Hospital. My first thought was, Absolutely not. I still felt disconnected from my body, so the idea of being touched and physically assessed was unbearable. But then my brother and his wife arrived at my apartment and offered to drive me to the hospital. I was comforted by their support, so I agreed. Although the process was long and gruelling, the nurses were as gentle as possible.

When I got back to my apartment a few hours later, my parents and a detective from Toronto’s 53 Division had arrived. The detective told me that I could come to the station whenever I felt ready to file an official statement. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to come forward. I couldn’t bear the thought of what had happened to me happening to anyone else. So, two days later, I went in, and over the course of an hour, I walked the detective through the night in detail. He showed me a picture of my co-worker, and I identified him. He told me that the next step would be his arrest, and about a week later, I received an email from the detective saying that he had turned himself in.

It was months before anyone from the justice system reached out to me. In May, my victim/witness worker called me with a list of mental health resources. By then, I’d quit my job—after his arrest, my co-worker had been required by law to stop volunteering at my workplace, but my emotional state was in tatters regardless. I was having crippling panic attacks. I ended up moving out of the city; I didn’t feel safe in my apartment anymore.

Emily Ager looks off to the side in a close up of her face

After that, I wasn’t contacted again until almost a year later, on March 1, 2023. In an email, my victim/witness worker told me that my former co-worker was pleading not guilty and that the trial was scheduled for three days in July. I’d been in therapy for months, working through what had happened to me. Despite my best efforts to heal, the idea of going to court brought back the anxiety, fear and helplessness I’d been trying so hard to forget. I asked to know more about what the trial would look like, but the victim/witness worker told me we could talk about it closer to the court date. I felt abandoned—I didn’t have a clear understanding of what to expect or how to prepare.

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I was so anxious leading up to my court appearance that I took a leave of absence from my new job in May. I was afraid of facing my former co-worker in court and was having nightmares about cross-examination. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be believed. Eventually, I had to quit my job—I wasn’t able to take any more time off.

Though the months leading up to the trial were mentally exhausting, I walked into the courthouse on the morning of July 5 feeling prepared. That lasted until I approached the detective, who told me he had bad news. “Emily, there’s no courtroom available,” he said. I was shocked. I had in my hand an official court document with the time and place of the trial. How is that possible? I thought. The detective said they had double-booked it and that only two courtrooms in the entire building were open. The Crown then made her way over to me and explained that this was the current state of the courthouse, that they were having staffing issues and would try to get me into a different courtroom after lunch. But lunch came and went, and still nothing was available. Eventually, I was told to leave and hope for better luck in the morning. I was bewildered by the oversight, but I still felt hopeful that the case would proceed.

When I entered the courthouse again at 10 a.m. the next day, it was the same—no courtrooms available. My stomach sank. What would happen if there wasn’t a courtroom on the last day? Would the case get tossed? They told me to stick around until the afternoon, but again, nothing was available. Instead of coming to the courthouse again tomorrow, the detective said he would call me if a courtroom freed up. I was losing hope that I’d ever take the stand.

On the third and final day of trial, I got a call at 11 a.m. The detective said that a room had opened up. I practically ran over, and twenty minutes after we’d hung up, I was approaching the stand to give my testimony. My palms were sweaty and my heart was thumping, but I took a deep breath and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I avoided looking at my co-worker as I painstakingly recounted every detail from that night. Then I was cross-examined. The defence lawyer tried to poke holes in my account, arguing that I had consented but didn’t remember. I responded, adamantly, that she was wrong.

When the court was dismissed, I realized that, for the first time, I felt strong again. It was like I’d regained a part of myself that I had lost. After that night, I’d only told a few people what had happened to me. For a year and a half, I’d tried to bury the experience in order to go about my daily life, but I felt like I was drowning. Speaking in court was terrifying, but it freed me from my silence.

Afterward, the Crown told me that the trial dates that had been missed were scheduled for mid-November. Since I’d already provided my testimony, I didn’t have to worry about being there. Suddenly, I could breathe again—the hardest part was over.

Then, on November 2, I got a call from a new victim/witness worker asking if we could meet as soon as possible. It was a week before the trial was scheduled to resume. Fifteen minutes later, I got on a Zoom call and found her, my detective, the Crown attorney and the deputy Crown attorney waiting for me. Immediately, I knew something was wrong. I’d never even met the deputy Crown attorney before.

The victim/witness worker started explaining that it had been over 18 months since the accused had been charged. Because of the delays caused by the cancelled courtrooms in July, his Charter rights to a speedy trial had been violated, and the defence had put through a motion to have the charges stayed. Prosecution would not resume—ever. My vision started blurring. She went on to explain that staffing issues at the courthouse were to blame and that this had been a recurring problem. Other complainants were in a similar position. I felt like the walls were closing in around me. Initially, I couldn’t move or speak, but a swell of anger gave me the strength to ask if there was an appeal process. She said she was sorry but that it would be best if I could put all this behind me.

When the Zoom call ended, I crumbled. How could I possibly move on from this? I’d done everything right—I was immediately interviewed by police, I rushed to get a rape kit done, I followed through with the detective to provide a statement. Of course I wanted a conviction, but I hadn’t expected one. I knew that the rate of conviction for sexual assault in Canada is low. More than anything, I wanted an acknowledgement of what had happened, and I hoped my former co-worker would be forced to get counselling or rehabilitation. Instead, I’d pointlessly subjected myself to a system that had re-traumatized and then discarded me. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself not to report the assault. I know now that the justice system couldn’t help me—it just violated me all over again.