Domestic violence in the legal world: Perspectives from an LAO articling student

By Ioana Ilas

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. What better time for those who do not experience domestic violence, or do not work in direct contact with abused individuals, to reflect on the persistence of this issue in our society. According to the latest report from Statistics Canada, in 2011, domestic violence accounted for 26 per cent of all violent crimes reported. This proportion is similar to that in 2010, where 49 per cent of the victims of domestic violence were in a current or previous spousal relationship with the accused person. This includes both common-law and married partnerships.

Every day, legal aid workers and staff lawyers work with victims of domestic violence across Ontario. They have become experts in assisting these vulnerable clients, and improving their access to justice.  I have been fortunate enough during my articling at the Toronto Family Law Service Centre to work closely with these experienced staff, and deepen my understanding of this complex issue.

What exactly is domestic violence, and why do we all need to be aware of its presence?

Domestic violence could be loosely defined as any use of physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional force, whether actual or threatened, by someone living under the same roof with the abused. While the victims are usually female spouses or partners, domestic violence is not uncommon towards children, seniors, male spouses or partners, siblings, or disabled persons.

Domestic violence is also defined by the space where it takes place: within the private boundaries of the family. Because of this, domestic violence is not always seen or reported. More significantly, law enforcements cannot enter homes as easily as they can enter public spaces due to privacy issues.

Many abused choose not to disclose or report the events.  Also, certain forms of violence, such as emotional or financial abuse, do not constitute crimes under the Criminal Code. Furthermore, traditional cultural norms can sometimes encourage the victim to accept a degree of violence which would otherwise fall under the rigour of the law. Domestic violence, then, can be insidious and persistent until victims gather the courage to reach out for help.

What new level of understanding have I acquired as an articling student with LAO?

First and foremost, I believe that the combination of strong legal knowledge and compassion are the prerequisite of a good family law lawyer. While shadowing LAO family law lawyers, I’ve noticed that every case and every victim is different, and there is no golden rule when it comes to communicating with a victim. The same type or degree of violence can provoke different types of trauma in different individuals. The feeling of fear, shame, low self-esteem or misplaced love can impair a client’s life perspective. Moreover, a family lawyer is seen not only as a public servant dealing with a legal matter, but also as a shoulder to cry on.

The professional relationship with a domestic victim can be a sensitive one, due to the client’s expectation that immediate justice must be done. Their lawyer has to filter out what information is important for the case and can be proved before the court. This can be a frustrating time for clients since to them, every single detail bears great weight. In such circumstances, a lawyer will often spend more time with the client explaining the case law pertaining to the issue at bar.

Public policies greatly improve our knowledge of what domestic violence is and what can be done to confront it. Yet the toughest battle is at the individual level: it is the battle for justice, truth and a civilized resolution of disputes. This is where a lawyer serving the public interest finds her motivation to assist clients to change their lives.

Ioana Ilas is an articling student-at-law with LAO.