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Planned speech by Ghomeshi's lawyer to four universities sparks debate

Canadian Press THE CANADIAN PRESS

The choice of Jian Ghomeshi's lawyer as a speaker at four Canadian universities is sparking debate on one Nova Scotia campus.

Marie Henein, a prominent Toronto defence lawyer, is scheduled to speak at Bishops University in February, with the presentation live-streamed to St. Francis Xavier, Acadia and Mount Allison universities.

Jasmine Cormier, a student at St. F.X. in Antigonish, has written an article in that university's weekly newspaper, saying Henein's selection serves to silence victims and perpetuate rape culture.

But, another prominent Toronto criminal lawyer, Joseph Neuberger, tells AdvocateDaily.com, “Regardless of the issue — whether involving criminal justice, politics or other important social issues, at no time should a lawyer or speaker be denied the right to lecture or speak at a university because of the perceptions of certain members of the public.”

Neuberger, partner with Neuberger & Partners adds: “Marie Henein is an accomplished lawyer and educator in the legal field. The criticisms both of her conduct in the Ghomeshi case and her speaking about our system of criminal justice are a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of our criminal justice system, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and a desire to push an agenda that sexual assault cases garner some special status apart from other crimes.” Listen to Neuberger on CHML on the subject.

``After all the controversy last year surrounding this trial and all the controversial things she said about women and victims and survivors in the past, it's such a disservice to students who are victims of sexual violence, who should feel safe coming forward, especially on a university campus,'' Cormier said in an interview with Canadian Press.

Lucille Harper, executive director of the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre, said the choice of Henein minimizes the issue of sexualized violence and ignores its pervasiveness across campuses.

``They ignore the fact that in bringing this person in you are potentially re-traumatizing students on your campus who have experienced sexual violence, or making it really clear as to what might happen should you come forward and disclose sexual violence to the police and go forward through a criminal justice system that you may very well be facing someone like Marie Heinen,'' Harper said.

Cormier said she's concerned by the message sent by Henein's aggressive treatment of the women who had accused the former CBC host of sexual misconduct, and she wants Henein's speech cancelled.

``She's a successful lawyer, she's a woman, and in those respects she would be a great person to have at this school, but the things that she has said and the comments that she has made, and the disregard for victims of sexual violence is just too much. When you think of Marie Henein now, that's what you associate her with,'' Cormier said.

Neuberger however notes that “our system of justice demands vigorous defence of any individual, male or female, of an alleged criminal offence, and we would all be much poorer off if defence lawyers were curtailed in their jobs or denied the right to speak because of the work they do.” 

Neuberger says that universities are places of “learning, thought and hopefully meaningful discourse.  It is vital that an opportunity to listen and understand the issue from all sides be explored without such unnecessary rhetoric.”

Neuberger further tells the online legal outlet, “This is not to say that all voices are not to be heard or that any victim should not have the full support of our criminal justice system. However, no one is guilty of a criminal offence unless the evidence establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and there was nothing about the cross-examination of the complainants that was inappropriate but was in fact necessary in the truth seeking purpose of a trial.” 

Many of the people commenting online about Cormier's article say Henein's speech will give another view on the important issue and allow for public debate.

Henein recently penned her own opinion piece, for The Globe and Mail, about the lessons of Hillary Clinton. She wrote the former U.S. secretary of state's recent loss must inspire women and girls to engage ``on every front ... until you cannot be overlooked.''

After Ghomeshi's acquittal in March of charges of sexual assault and choking, the then-editor of Canadian Lawyer magazine, Gail Cohen, penned what was headlined ``A love letter to Marie Henein,'' in which she said Henein's peers consider her one of the best in her field.

``The outrage, the mudslinging, the name calling, and the general focus on Henein is a sign of the times, and not a good sign, in my humble opinion. Almost all of it shows an incredible lack of understanding by the public of the justice system, what a defence counsel's role is in the system, and what the rights of the accused are,'' she wrote in May.

Henein did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. She told the CBC in late March that she was simply doing her job defending the presumption of innocence.

A St. F.X. spokesperson deferred comment to Bishops, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

– With files from AdvocateDaily.com

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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