Why LAO needs a domestic violence strategy

This piece originally appeared on our Domestic Violence Strategy page.

Over the last couple of years, there’s been more and more of a media spotlight on the continuing severity and prevalence of domestic violence in Canada.

Over at Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), we first committed to prioritizing services for those who have experienced domestic violence in 2002. Since then, we developed guidelines for all front line and intake staff to appropriately screen LAO applicants, and we also have begun domestic violence awareness training.

But more needs to be done.

Clients and their intersecting legal needs

Those of us in the legal community commonly see domestic violence cases where one or both parties involved in a family law proceeding is also charged criminally with a domestic violence offence.

According to a 2013 provincial study by the Department of Justice, it’s estimated that, in about 10.7 per cent of family law cases, there’s also a domestic violence criminal proceeding happening at the same time.

In such cases, the matters are more complex and challenging for both criminal and family lawyers. Both sets of lawyers have to keep in mind that what they take to advance their clients’ interests in one set of proceedings might undermine the rights of their client in the other forum.

Let’s look at the case of Anne*, who was routinely physically and verbally abused by her husband, Frank. One day, in a heated argument, Anne tried to defend herself. When a neighbour called the police, they charged Anne with assault.

A non-contact bail order might hurt Anne’s ongoing efforts in family court to gain custody of her children, and it’s easy to understand why she might not want to call the police again. For people like Anne, there’s a real fear of the legal consequences with respect to custody, access and support. They may also fear that reporting the abuse may also lead them to being cross-charged with a domestic violence assault offence.

Challenges are also heightened when there’s a threat to an immigration or refugee status.

Let’s look at Farah’s situation: Farah has conditional resident status and, as a result, must live with her Canadian husband, Omar, for two years before obtaining permanent residency. Despite the fact that Omar is physically, verbally and financially abusing Farah, she is reluctant to leave. Sponsorship obligations and fear of deportation may keep her from reporting domestic violence—and it may make her uncertain about whether she can leave an abusive partner without facing immigration or refugee consequences.

There are also many intersecting needs between child protection matters and domestic violence. Research by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies shows that in 30 to 60 per cent of homes where domestic violence occurs, children are also abused.

Too often, major legal issues create secondary legal consequences. For example, a custody and access matter may trigger legal issues related to income security and housing or an individual’s ability to access legal representation.

Developing a strategy

As LAO begins to develop a domestic violence strategy, particular attention will be paid to the specific needs of clients who have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence.

Such a strategy would enable us to:

  • better identify complex intersecting legal needs and ensure that clients can access a range of services like housing support, counselling, and transportation services
  • expand access to legal services
  • develop processes that reflect a better understanding of how domestic violence impacts a client’s experience in the legal system
  • provide better supports to service providers, including community organizations, lawyers, community clinics and other agencies and;
  • create a sustainable plan to ensure LAO staff are educated on how domestic violence impacts clients

Getting input

Our starting point with the domestic violence strategy was to take a look at LAO’s services through the lens of a client who has experienced or is experiencing domestic violence. We’ll explore this in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, this summer, we’re holding consultation sessions across the province because we want input and feedback from domestic violence survivors, shelter workers, and justice and social service partners.

We really want to hear from you about your experiences in the justice system. (Confidentiality will be respected.)

If you can’t make it out to an in-person session, you can read our discussion paper, Development of a Domestic Violence Strategy, and email us at dvs@lao.on.ca with your thoughts and feedback.

*Not their real names. All personal examples in this post are based on composites of client experiences. LAO prioritizes client confidentiality, and only publishes client names and experiences when the client has provided consent, in writing.