Empowerment over disempowerment: OBA Awards Gala

Ontario Bar Association Awards Gala signageThe King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto is not a usual hangout for violence against women types. Nonetheless, on April 17th, Luke’s Place Executive Director, Carol Barkwell and I, along with four of the founding sisters of Luke’s Place got ourselves dressed up and headed to the Crystal Ballroom, where the Ontario Bar Association awarded Luke’s Place its Foundation Award for its “exceptional contributions to the improvement of the justice system through public legal education, research or other means.”

We were in good company. The President’s Award was presented to the Honourable Patricia Hennessy and lawyer James Douglas for their work to advance women’s equality. Martha Jackman, a professor at OttawaU’s Faculty of Law and long-time co-chair of the National Association of Women and the Law received the award for legal writing. The David Scott Award for Pro Bono Law went to Erin Durant for her tireless work to stop the closing of Pro Bono Ontario’s legal help centres, who called on the sold-out room of lawyers and judges to fight against recent funding cuts to Legal Aid Ontario.

Vision and determination

Lukes Place ED with OBA Foundation AwardIt has been my honour and privilege to work with Luke’s Place since the early 2000s. Established out of the tragedy of the murder of three-year-old Luke Schillings by his father in 1997, after his mother unsuccessfully sought supervised access, to offer women leaving abusive relationships support during their journey through family court, Luke’s Place has grown into an informal centre of excellence on violence against women and family law.

This is largely due to the vision, dedication and determination of founding and ongoing Executive Director Carol Barkwell. Since its inception and under her gentle yet persistent leadership, Luke’s Place has made an exceptional contribution at both the regional and provincial levels to the improvement of the justice system through public legal education and innovative research and direct service.

Luke’s Place developed the Legal Support Worker model, the first of its kind in Canada, in which women are provided with wrap-around supports as they make their way through the tumultuous and often dangerous family law process. This model was the inspiration for Ontario’s Family Court Support Worker Program, funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General, for which Luke’s Place provides ongoing training to the 100+ workers throughout the province.

With the support of dedicated family law lawyers in the Durham Region, Luke’s Place provides women with summary legal advice through a weekly in-person pro-bono clinic. These lawyers also participate in the delivery of legal information workshops to women.

Safer outcomes

Women who access Luke’s Place are safer, physically and emotionally, and emerge from the family law process with better outcomes in shorter periods of time than they otherwise would.

Luke’s Place has taken what it has learned in Durham Region to create programs for women across the province. The Virtual Legal Clinic uses the internet to connect women in remote regions who can’t find lawyers in their own communities with pro bono lawyers in other parts of the province for summary legal advice.

To build a community of lawyers with an understanding of family violence, we have developed an online course about the unique challenges of representing women who have been subjected to abuse.

The resources the organization developed to support its own work are now available to workers and lawyers throughout Ontario.

The newest resource, Family Court and Beyond, is intended for women fleeing abuse. It consists of a website, a workbook and an organizer, all of which contain invaluable legal information as well as checklists, charts and tables to assist women as they move through the family law process.

rosesLuke’s Place has been involved in training for judges and lawyers; in particular, for Legal Aid Ontario, where we developed a one-day in-person domestic violence awareness training that we have delivered to more than 2,000 LAO staff, community legal clinics and per diem lawyers.

Luke’s Place has published research on a wide range of topics related to violence against women and family law. Most recently, we conducted research for Justice Canada on the importance of family violence screening tools for family law lawyers.

Changing the law

Luke’s Place plays a leadership role in law reform advocacy. We were a member of Ontario’s Violence Against Women Roundtable. Working with the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), we led a national coalition of women’s equality organizations in responding to Bill C-78, which proposes major revisions to the Divorce Act.

As Carol said upon receiving the award:

“Our work – with individual women and the systems with which they must engage – situates the law within the broader context of women’s lives. We do this by pairing lawyers with counsellors, by training lawyers to better understand the dynamics of abuse both before and after separation, by creating tools to support frontline workers and by developing resources so women can become empowered rather than disempowered by their engagement with family law and court.

While family court remains a challenging arena for many women fleeing abuse, we know that women who are supported through our integrated model of direct service by lawyers and counsellors emerge from the process more quickly, with better outcomes and, perhaps most importantly, with the opportunity of lives free from violence and the threat of violence for themselves and their children.”

Brava Luke’s Place! This award from the OBA is well deserved: there is no doubt that the justice system has been improved by the efforts of this tiny organization that just won’t take no for an answer.

This article and the photographs were reprinted with permission from the website of our Legal Director, Pamela Cross (pamelacross.ca).