In a historic move, the RCMP today offered an official apology along with $100-million in compensation to hundreds female officers and employees who’d claimed ongoing discrimination and sexual harassment on the job.
As many as 500 of them had been participating in a proposed class-action lawsuit against the force that prompted the settlement.
But how exactly does such a suit work, and what will it mean for both the RCMP the women challenging it?
LISTEN: Class-Action lawyer John Green breaks down the historic settlement
John Green is a lawyer with Hanson & Company who specializes in class action suits, and says the case is complex.
Compensation is being broken into six levels, ranging from a payout at level one of $10,000 up to $220,000 in compensation for level six.
For context, level one refers to incidents like sexual comments, jokes, or inappropriate questions about one’s personal life.
Level six refers forcing the complainant to engage in penetrative sex acts, sexual assault that Green says may carry a lifetime of trauma.
“What you see in cases of rape, it can cause people to leave their careers, post traumatic stress is something you almost always see in sexual assaults like that.”
What is a class action?
So how does a suit like this work? Green says once a class action is certified by a judge it essentially bundles similar claims by a group of people in an official capacity.
“Class action in British Columbia means you can represent everybody who lives in British Columbia that has that same issue against the defendant.”
But it’s not automatic. First a judge needs to assess the case and certify it as a class action suit.
Once that’s been done, it represents everyone with those claims over the time period in question.
Green says sometimes, even if the individual cases have difficult issues, they’ll get the green light for certification in order to avoid clogging the courts with hundreds of claims – something that would have happened in this case.
“In the worst cases you can imagine it’s going to suck up an enormous amount of time for the RCMP and their senior officials.”
He says while this suit hadn’t yet been certified, Ottawa likely saw the writing on the wall.
“In a case like this, I don’t think the government really had anything to gain by keeping it going.”
What will the settlement mean for the RCMP… and the women challenging it?
Now that the ink is dry, how will the settlement shake out?
Green says for the Mounties, it will likely mean many of the individual officers alleged to have committed the offending acts will escape scrutiny.
“There’s probably a lot of happy male RCMP officers that know that they’re not going to be embarrassed by some of this.”
He says once the case is settled, it means the ugly details of many of the incidents won’t be aired in open court.
He says criminal prosecution in still possible, but many women who had been sexually assaulted, sometimes decades ago, may not be particularly interested in revisiting the trauma in court.
Green adds for many other women, the compensation is desperately needed, particularly for those who’ve been off work or had their lives on hold as the process slowly ground forward.
But with some of the claims dating back to the 1980s, how will they prove their cases?
“There will probably be sworn evidence like affidavit evidence. Likely in the serious cases they’ll need to sit down with a lawyer and the lawyer will take the evidence and it will all go down on paper.”
He says Ottawa will likely be establishing some sort of vetting process to ensure claims are legitimate, but when it boils down to a decades old he-said she-said, he believes the process will err on the side of the complainant.
“It may not matter. It could be simply their word, and they’re going to accept in this case that that’s enough.”