Case comment: Coercive control & family violence

hands on a book

Case summary prepared by Luke’s Place Advocacy Director, Pamela Cross

In this case (F.S. v. M.B.T. 2023 ONCJ 102), Justice Sherr carefully analyzes the context of family violence, including coercive control, when making a decision related to parenting arrangements for a 12-year-old child. The case also involves a claim for spousal support by the mother, which is not discussed in this case summary.

The mother and father separated in mid-2021 after being married for approximately 11 years. Their child lived with the mother from the time of separation. Other than two unsuccessful virtual visits between the father and child in 2022, he had not seen the child since the date of separation. The child continuously refused to see her father.

The mother sought an order that the child live primarily with her, that she have sole decision-making responsibility, that the child’s time with the father be in the child’s discretion and that she not have to obtain the father’s consent to obtain travel documents for the child or travel with her outside Canada (the family came to Canada from Kenya in 2011).

The father did not oppose the child having her primary residence with her mother, but sought joint decision-making responsibility and specified parenting time. He opposed the mother’s request that she not have to obtain his consent for travel-related matters.

In examining the issue of family violence, Justice Sherr noted:

  • The court must consider “whether a co-operative parenting arrangement is appropriate,” because the victim “might be unable to co-parent due to the trauma they have experienced or ongoing fear of the perpetrator. In addition, co-operative arrangements may lead to opportunities for further family violence”
  • “Family violence can be insidious. It can take many forms, and frequently involves coercive and controlling behaviors which are usually very difficult to prove because they often take place in private.”
  • Abusers are often manipulative, charming, convincing liars and persuasive
  • It’s common for victims not to speak out and for their evidence to be inconsistent
  • IPV is difficult to prove and is often not reported
  • “Coercive control can be subtle and only evident to the victim”

He detailed many examples of the father’s abusive behaviour, finding the mother to be a more reliable and credible witness than the father.

Especially interesting, Justice Sherr noted that “The strongest evidence corroborating the mother’s version of events came from the father.” He then detailed his own impressions of the parties during the trial.

“[The mother} appeared overwhelmed, intimidated by the process and submissive . . . she appeared to shrink in her chair and made herself small during the trial.”

The father, on the other hand, was, in the judge’s observations of him, domineering, authoritative, controlling, a bully, aggressive, intimidating, quick to anger, a rigid thinker, contemptuous of the mother, lacking in empathy, respect or insight.

“The court finds that the father has used the litigation process to try to control and intimidate the mother. His claim for joint decision-making responsibility was a non-starter. In this context, the court draws the conclusion that he maintained this claim as an intimidation tactic.”

Justice Sherr made a number of findings of fact, all of which supported the mother’s position that the father had engaged in ongoing family violence. He found that the violence had been “significant and long-standing,” that the mother’s fear of the father was justified and that the father had perpetrated family violence against the child. He determined that there had been no parental alienation by the mother, and that the child’s views and wishes were independent, “clear, consistent, strong and long-standing.” He rejected the father’s request that the child participate in family reunification therapy.

The judge had a number of suggestions for the father, should he want to repair his relationship with both the mother and the child: to take responsibility for his past behaviour rather than continuing to blame others, to take a parenting course and attend counselling. He also said that the father should not bring any motions to change until taking these steps.

With respect to parenting time, based on his careful consideration of the law, case law and the facts of the case, Justice Sherr ordered that the child have her primary residence with the mother, that the mother have sole decision-making responsibility, including the ability to obtain government documentation and travel outside Canada with the child without the father’s consent, and that the father’s parenting time be at the discretion of the mother, taking into account the child’s views and wishes.