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Mother to discuss new law with Harper in response to Rehtaeh Parsons case

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HALIFAX - The mother and stepfather of Rehtaeh Parsons are meeting with the prime minister Tuesday to discuss how to ensure the distribution of sexually explicit images without consent is treated as a criminal offence.

"The meeting is specifically revolving around one aspect. It's revolving around changes to the criminal code," Leah Parsons said in a telephone interview.

She said she and her partner Jason Barnes received an invitation from the prime minister's office on Sunday and have been hurrying to make arrangements to fly to Ottawa to discuss her daughter's death with Stephen Harper.

Calls for the criminalization of the distribution of intimate images without consent have increased since the death of the 17-year-old Nova Scotian became public and created an outpouring of anger and grief in the province.

Parsons attempted to hang herself on April 4 and was taken off life-support three days later.

Her family alleges she was sexually assaulted at a house party by four boys in November 2011 and a sexually explicit photograph of the 15-year-old was distributed.

Police said initially they couldn't prosecute due to insufficient evidence, but recently reopened the case after a new source had come forward.

Premier Darrell Dexter also said Sunday he will be meeting with the prime minister on Tuesday to discuss the change to the criminal code.

He said Rehtaeh Parsons will be at the top of their agenda.

"These kinds of changes are needed as a result of changes in technology," he said.

"The simple fact is the laws we have are not keeping pace."

On Friday, the province's justice minister said in the legislature that he wants to make the circulation of intimate images without consent a criminal act.

Ross Landry said this would apply in cases where the images are distributed for malicious or sexual purposes.

He also said he's receiving support from his counterparts in other provinces, with Saskatchewan Justice Minister Gordon Wyant responding that "his province supports Nova Scotia's efforts."

Harper reacted strongly to the Parsons case on April 11, when he said as a parent of a teenage daughter that he found the story to be "sickening."

He said it was time to stop using the term bullying to describe such incidents, saying they are often "youth criminal activity," and "Internet criminal activity."

In a posting on Sunday, Harper's wife Laureen and a number of prominent Conservatives tweeted their support for needhelpnow.ca, a website that helps teens respond if someone posts sexual images of them on the Internet.

"Helping to get the word out about needhelpnow.ca," she wrote. Harper also posted a photo of herself holding a sign with the organization's address on it.

However, one expert said she wonders if the criminal code proposal being floated is the solution.

Valerie Steeves, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, said she would need to see specifics of any proposed law, but she is concerned about hasty reforms based on one case.

"When you look at extreme examples you may create bad law, especially when there are laws in place that could have been used to protect this child," she said.

Steeves said existing child pornography law would prohibit the distribution of sexual images of Parsons, who was 15 at the time of the alleged incident.

"Even if this was consensual (sex), it still was a depiction of a minor in a sexually explicit image. Therefore it falls within the definition of child pornography," she said.

She said if there was a sexual assault, the image's distribution would be illegal under criminal code sections dealing with obscenity.

The key question is what police or prosecutors did to react to the distribution of the image under existing law, said Steeves.

"We have laws in place. ... What's interesting to me is asking the question of why this image was allowed to traffic?"

Steeves adds there may be gaps in the criminal code when it comes to the distribution of explicit adult images that are sent without consent, including sexually explicit "revenge" images that are distributed after relationships end.

However, she says the best solution may be to develop civil law remedies _ such as the tort of invasion of privacy _ where people gain more control of images and can demand their withdrawal by Internet service providers.

Dexter said the legal change would still assist.

"When laws are in place they drive home that the acts ... are of a criminal nature," he said.

"The advent of stiffer penalties put the appropriate stigma in place that affected peoples' behaviours."

"As technology develops, as we see new kinds of activities, the criminal law is going to have to respond."

The Nova Scotia government has also announced it will hold reviews of the police and prosecution service's handling of the case, after the current investigation is complete.

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