Verbal abuse by text

The Family Law Act allows a spouse to seek an order for exclusive possession of the matrimonial home. Violence is one of the criteria to be considered by the court when dealing with such an application.

A recent Ontario case — Menchella v Menchella, 2012 ONSC 6304 — has considered the meaning of that requirement in the context of verbal abuse sent by the father to the mother via text messages.

In granting the mother’s request for an exclusive possession order, Madam Justice McGee said, in part:

Violence through words and deeds is a concept well established in both criminal and civil law. Words may be delivered in many different forms. The facelessness and ubiquitous nature of electronic messaging imposes no variation on the usual analysis . . . violence in my view includes psychological assault upon the sensibilities of the other spouse to a degree which renders continued sharing of the matrimonial dwelling impractical. Where, as here, the conduct of the husband in written and spoken communication to the wife is calculated to produce and does in fact produce an anxiety state which puts the wife in fear of her husband’s behaviour and impinges on her mental and physical health, violence has been done to her as surely as if she had been struck by a physical blow. . . .

Intimidation and emotional abuse can take many forms. The court has a responsibility to address the real dynamics between the parties, including any effort by a strong or dominant partner to engage in psychological warfare, or coerce without making disclosure. . .

There can be no doubt that the vitriolic communications constitute “violence” . . . They are threatening, intimidating and were intended to be taken seriously. They occurred over the course of a full week, and were not provoked in any manner by the mother. A reasonable person could not view the father’s texts as either jestful or ambivalent.

At a time when people increasingly communicate electronically – by text, email, on Facebook and through other social media – this is a very important decision.

Too often, people use social media without thinking about the long-term implications of what they have written. In this case, the decision of the court had a positive impact for a woman whose partner was abusive. However, the same principles would apply had it been the woman who had written abusive text messages.

When working with women, it is important to caution them about the possible outcomes of the content of their social media messages (including images as well as words) and to encourage them to keep their online communications and profiles as professional and non-combative as possible.

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