Victim of childhood sex assault says system silences survivors after court delays set abuser free

A B.C. woman who was sexually abused by an older cousin when she was a child in the 1980s says she was crushed to learn the province’s highest court will allow him to remain a free man, despite multiple convictions.

The B.C. Court of Appeal has upheld a lower court order staying proceedings against Manjit Singh Virk, the man who assaulted Jeeti Pooni beginning when she was just 11 years old.

“One would think at some point that the system is going to work for survivors,” Pooni said of that decision.

“It was very disheartening, disappointing — you name it — when one has spoken their truth, testified and there’s a guilty verdict, and then you receive this news.”

Virk was convicted in 2018 of four criminal counts related to the historical sexual abuse of three younger cousins.

But the proceedings were stayed when a B.C. Supreme Court justice found that the seven-year delay from when Virk was first charged until the end of the trial was unreasonable. The Crown appealed, questioning the lower court judge’s calculations and decision to issue a stay after the trial was complete, but the appeals court dismissed those arguments on Wednesday.

Writing on behalf of a unanimous panel of five justices, Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon expressed some discomfort with the outcome.

“This is a troubling case. The charges were serious, involving sexual abuse of vulnerable complainants. Mr. Virk was found to be guilty of most of the offences charged,” she wrote.

“A stay of proceedings in these circumstances marks a failure of the justice system.”

The ruling stems from the landmark Jordan decision of 2016, which sets a limit of 30 months for trials in superior court. Beyond that deadline, any delay is presumed to be unreasonable, apart from exceptional circumstances or unnecessary delay caused by the defence.

In the Virk case, Fenlon noted that a large portion of the delay was a result of “complacency and lack of urgency” by Virk’s original defence lawyer, but said the Crown compounded those delays by failing “to take control of the prosecution and move it along effectively.”

Abuse prevents survivors from ‘thriving’

Virk was convicted of sexual crimes against three young cousins — Pooni, her sister Salakshana (Surjit) Pooni and their cousin Rajinder Rana — in the years from 1980 to 1985. He was originally charged with sexually assaulting a third Pooni sister as well, but was found not guilty of those charges at trial.

The girls were between the ages of 11 and 17 when the attacks happened.

The abuse took place not long after Virk immigrated to Canada from India, while they were all living in Pooni’s family home in Williams Lake.

Virk’s trial heard that Pooni was just 11 years old when he sexually assaulted her while her parents were on a trip to India in 1980. She kept the abuse a secret for years before finally confiding in her sisters, and learning they all had similar stories.

Sisters Salakshana, Jeeti and Kira with their mother growing up in Williams Lake, where their parents immigrated from India. (National Film Board)

They eventually turned to their parents, who failed to hold Virk accountable, so the sisters reported their abuse to the police in 2007. Virk was finally arrested and charged in 2011, more than three decades after his crimes.

Now 52, Pooni said the abuse has affected every aspect of her life.

“That means emotionally, physically, health-wise and all of that. It does prevent one from thriving and living the life that one is born to live. When you go through an experience like this, then the onus is up to the survivor to find their healing,” she said.

‘It’s about doing the right thing’

She feels dismayed about what the appeal court decision means for other survivors of sex assault. Few of these crimes result in charges and fewer still lead to convictions — just one in 10 sex assaults reported to police ends with a guilty finding, according to Statistics Canada.

Pooni managed to beat those odds and get a conviction, but her abuser is still walking free.

“How is this going to inspire anyone to even break their silence and come forward?” she asked. “It’s crushing voices and keeping survivors silent and preventing them from coming forward.”

She said she’s counting on the Crown to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, and for the justice system to find some way to stop this from happening to anyone else.

“It’s not about vengeance. It’s not about disrespect. It’s about doing the right thing,” she said.

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