I have heard that there is a court in Toronto that hears family and criminal cases together when there has been domestic violence. How does that work?

Toronto is the site of a pilot project to integrate family and criminal cases in situations of domestic violence. This court is called the Integrated Domestic Violence Court (IDVC) and has been in operation since June 2011.

The IDVC builds on the concept of a specialized response to domestic violence that is now well established in Canadian criminal courts. In many jurisdictions, domestic violence prosecutions are dealt with in specialized courts. These courts have been able to provide increased support for victims (Victim Witness Assistance Program, specialized bail safety projects, etc.) and have led to higher rates of both guilty pleas and convictions, but a significant lack of coordination and communication, in particular with family court, remains a challenge. The result is that women and their children are often left at risk of continuing and even escalating abuse.

All of us who support women who have left abusive relationships understand well the problems inherent in the present siloed approach.

The significant differences between the two court systems can be confusing to anyone not experienced in both systems. In cases of violence against women, those differences can lead to outcomes that leave the victim exposed to ongoing and sometimes escalated risk of abuse.

For example, the courts have different purposes and different standards of proof. In criminal court, unless she has been charged, the woman is not a party, does not have a lawyer and does not have access to legal aid assistance, including duty counsel. In family court, both people are parties, have the right to legal representation and, if they qualify, to legal aid assistance, including the services of duty counsel.

The lack of coordination and communication between the courts noted above poses probably the most significant challenges to victims who are involved in both systems.

The judges are different and may not even know that a proceeding is underway in the other court. Information is not shared because of privacy issues for the accused.

Bail conditions may conflict with an existing custody and access order, restraining order terms may appear to conflict with bail or probation conditions and criminal court orders do not always coordinate with a child protection proceeding order.

Sometimes, an abuser will seek to have family court proceedings delayed until the criminal court case is resolved, hoping he will be acquitted and that he can use this to counter allegations of abuse made by his partner in the family case. These delays can have serious, negative impacts on the woman and children and both psychological and physical safety issues can arise.

Toronto’s IDVC is an attempt to respond to these issues. It is a judiciary-led initiative, supported by the Office of the Chief Justice, and is part of the Ontario Court of Justice. As such, it can become involved only in summary conviction criminal cases and family law cases that do not involve property claims or an application for divorce.

The goals of the IDVC are:

  • To allow for better-informed judicial decision making because judges will have information about both the criminal and family issues the family is dealing with. In theory, this should lead to better safety-related outcomes such as bail conditions and restraining orders as well as custody arrangements that reflect a broad-based understanding of what is going on with the family
  • To eliminate conflicting or inconsistent orders, which should lead to better enforcement and compliance
  • To provide consistent handling of cases by a single judge who has domestic violence knowledge and experience as well as expertise in both criminal and family law
  • To provide a better connection for families to community services and resources
  • To reduce costs for the parties and the court system
  • To develop expertise on domestic violence within the court

When it first began operation, the IDVC was voluntary. All parties, including the Crown, had to consent to moving the case from the separate family and criminal courts to the IDVC. However, this did not lead to very many cases making their way to the IDVC, so in March 2012, the Office of the Chief Justice issued a Practice Direction that all cases involving a domestic violence prosecution that were also involved in family court proceedings were to move to the IDVC automatically.

The IDVC sits one day every two weeks, under the direction of one of two judges. The court also has a dedicated Crown Attorney, both criminal and family duty counsel, a VWAP worker and a FCSW as well as a staff person from the FLIC.

One judge deals with both the criminal and family proceedings, with the criminal matters proceedings being addressed first, followed by the family matters.

Relatively few cases have made their way into the IDVC: by September 2014 (just over 3 years after the court opened) only 41 cases were in the court. Of these, 43 criminal and 19 family cases had been completed.

An evaluation of the IDVC is underway but has not yet been published, so little information is available as to whether or not the pilot is being deemed a success.

There is no indication at this time about whether the concept might be expanded to other jurisdictions and so, for now, it is only available to those whose cases are being heard in the Ontario Court of Justice in downtown Toronto.

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