Victims and Survivors of Crime Week takes place across Canada from May 24 to 30, 2020. The annual awareness week shines a light on issues faced by victims and survivors of crime and the services, programs and laws in place to help them and their families.
This year, YWCA Metro Vancouver is highlighting the ongoing challenges survivors of intimate partner violence face when trying to access justice through the court system; challenges further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The YWCA’s Staff Lawyer, Pat Shannon, explains more:
Hi Pat, thank you so much for taking the time to speak on this critical issue.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted survivors of intimate partner violence and their access to justice?
I think it’s important to start by noting that intimate partner violence was a pandemic well before COVID-19 and this situation has only exacerbated it. Domestic violence is not a thing of the past, it’s here and now and it's getting worse.
As a result of COVID-19, the Courts have closed to in-person hearings but are continuing to hear, what they deem, urgent cases over teleconference. However, for the most part, urgency relates to the safety and well-being of children so for a single mom fighting to get regular child support from her child/children’s dad, the closure of the courts can mean months of financial hardship. When dad doesn’t follow the parenting schedule, these disruptions can also be traumatic and disruptive. Of course, the court must triage cases, but when it comes to family law, everything is urgent to a mother trying to look after her children.
For many families who have had their cases delayed with no clear return date, it is very challenging. That kind of uncertainty is stressful for anyone and can be especially traumatic for survivors of intimate partner violence and folks who can’t afford alternative legal services right now.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic had any positive impacts on the court system?
The courts were slow to adapt to the 21st Century, but in response to COVID-19 we are finally starting to see the introduction of more efficient processes.
While moving hearings onto virtual platforms and telephone hearings has been created as a means-to-an-end, I can see the potential for virtual hearings to have very positive applications in the future. For example, many people struggle to get to the courthouse regularly while also trying to care for their children or work. Where it is particularly traumatic for a victim of intimate partner violence to have to sit in the same room as their abuser, these platforms might offer a way to reduce that. Also, for people living in rural communities who don’t have easy access to a court, or for people who cannot easily access public transportation or who don’t have a car, virtual hearings would make the legal system that much more accessible to them.
It would be great to see the courts implement some of these new processes long term.
Why is the court system particularly tough for survivors of intimate partner violence?
I think there is a real misunderstanding that for survivors of intimate partner violence, the violence ends when they leave the relationship. Unfortunately, this is not the case, especially where a child or children are involved. The court system is a setting where abusive partners have a platform to continue their abuse, and for the most part, the court system is not trauma-informed, meaning survivors are often traumatized or re-traumatized when they try to resolve their family matters.
Family law is a feminist issue. There are key historical events that we acknowledge as critical steps forward for the feminist movement – women getting the right to vote, access to equal healthcare, the first transition houses to allow women to escape violence – and the family law system, and its role in allowing women to leave abusive marriages without losing everything, including their children, is one of them. As a system, it should protect women and children and if it’s not doing what it needs to then it’s a huge loss for gender equality – for all of us.
The system, as it stands, is slow, traumatic and confusing. Legal assistance, which every survivor of intimate partner violence requires and deserves, is often of limited duration and excludes many women who make just enough to fall outside the income requirements, but not enough to afford private counsel. That’s why the YWCA created my position – to fill the gap left by our underfunded legal aid system. But I am just one lawyer. There are other wonderful organizations in Vancouver doing fantastic work, but nothing entirely addresses the severity of our access to justice crisis. And that crisis impacts women more severely.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately only made this situation worse because the courts are trying to push the negotiations back onto the parties through mediation. While mediation is often a very good tool to avoid court, in the case of dealing with intimate partner violence it can be traumatizing for survivors and they can be bullied into agreements that do not serve them or their children. I have a real concern that in the absence of access to justice, women are going to agree to arrangements that put them and their children at further risk.
So, what is the solution? How can we rebuild our court system to better protect survivors of intimate partner violence?
We need a multi-faceted solution, starting with training in trauma-informed practice for all judges and lawyers to ensure decisions are made through a trauma-informed lens, ensuring our court system supports women and doesn’t put them into an endless cycle of mediation with their abusive ex-partner. We need the updated systems that allow increased access to justice (such as being able to email court documents instead of dropping them in person and teleconference or virtual hearings) to be continued beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
We need more funding for Legal Aid so that everyone who needs a lawyer will have access to one. We need the court system’s processes and roles to be streamlined and simplified so people clearly know what is expected and what they must do in order to access the justice they deserve. More than promoting one avenue of resolution, like mediation or trials, we need to make sure that people are having their disputes resolved quickly and in a manner that has them feel like their voices have been heard.
And we need to get solutions in a reasonable amount of time to allow women to move forward and rebuild their lives. Something as simple as changing the child and spousal support system so it’s paid by the government and reimbursed by the father would make a huge difference to the women we support at the YWCA. It would allow them the financial stability and independence to build better futures for themselves and their children.
Can you talk us through how your work supporting survivors of intimate partner violence has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
There’s a number of things, such as representing clients on telephone hearings and spending a lot more time translating communication from the courts into plain language for clients and the public, but one thing that is now a much bigger part of my day is supporting clients to find temporary but practical solutions for their family needs, where cases have been deemed non-urgent and won’t have a hearing soon.
In normal circumstances, parties return to court when there has been a “material change in circumstances” - that’s a legal term for a change in circumstances where the court would be prepared to review an order and change it. At the moment, without school or child care and with reduced services and contact with community supports, most (if not all) families have experienced a “material change in circumstances” - at a time when courts are closed to all but the most pressing concerns. Parents are having to work things out themselves. When this involves a woman trying to negotiate with her abusive ex-partner, it can be particularly traumatic. I’m there for our mothers to support them and, if appropriate, to hash out solutions with them and communicate these to dad. I have done this work in the past, but it is now a much bigger part of my day.
If someone reading this is experiencing intimate partner violence or knows someone who is, where can they go for help?
I want to reiterate that urgent applications are still being heard by courts. Women should speak with a lawyer if they can, but if in doubt, make an application. I have found judges to be extremely kind and understanding during these urgent hearings and despite the challenges with the system, everyone is working very hard and doing their best to help.
Transition houses are still open and emergency spaces are available for women leaving an abusive relationship. The YWCA also has access to hotel rooms, kindly donated during this time by a very generous supporter, for women and children who need somewhere safe to go.
Crisis lines are also available 24/7 and can be a listening ear for anyone who needs help, support, advice or just someone to talk to.
- The YWCA Seeds of Independence Program is an outreach program providing mobile support to women who have left abusive relationships. For referrals and applications, please contact Jessica West at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604 313 6456.
- Atira Women’s Society has set up a call-in line for women who need support over the course of this Coronavirus Pandemic. Please call 604 800 8881 if you are self-isolating and need someone to talk to, if you have been laid off, are facing eviction or are low on medication or food, and they will do their best to assist you.
- Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) offers immediate, short-term help to survivors of violence in intimate relationships, childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual assault. Please phone their Crisis Line on 604 687 1867 or toll-free on 1 855 687 1868.