What does family law have to do with violence against women?

White mom and school age boy

When any relationship ends, many things need to be resolved.

When a couple separates -- whether they are married or living in a common law relationship -- a number of decisions must be made:

  • If they have children, they must decide on arrangements for them
  • One person may need the financial support of the other person
  • The children must be supported financially too
  • The adults must decide what will happen to the home they shared, whether it’s property they own or a place they rent
  • They will need to divide their property

These can be difficult decisions.

Family law and family court

Such decisions can be handled informally by the couple without involving the law, but it is better if they are done legally in order to:

  • Ensure everyone’s rights, including the children’s, are protected
  • Hold the adults accountable for following through on what they agree on

To resolve issues legally, the former partners will use family law. This means legislation and legal processes that deal with separation agreements and divorces, property division and the family home, spousal and child support, and arrangements for children.

The former couple will need to work with lawyers to finalize these decisions. If they have disagreements they can’t resolve, they can meet with a mediator and/or go to family court.

When an abusive relationship ends

When one person in the relationship is abusive to the other, making decisions at the end of the relationship is much more difficult.

As the relationship ends, the abusive partner will struggle with losing control. This often leads to increased violence. According to Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, a woman is at the highest risk of being killed by her former partner beginning when the partner knows, or believes he knows, that she’s planning to leave. That risk continues over several months after the initial separation.

This is the very time when separating couples turn to family law to resolve disputes about their children, finances and property. A woman may also turn to family law for safety reasons, to get a restraining order or exclusive possession of the matrimonial (family) home.

Preparing to leave an abuser, preparing for family court

If a woman has left an abusive partner, she will need:

  • Safety planning support for herself and her children: The abuse will likely increase and the abuser’s tactics will change as their relationship changes
  • Family law information: The system is complex, especially for a person who is dealing with trauma
  • Family law support: Assistance with collecting evidence, preparing documents and going to court
  • Family law safety interventions: There may be safety issues that need to be addressed through a restraining order or an order for exclusive possession of the matrimonial home
  • Legal advice: A lawyer can provide a buffer between a woman and her former partner. If she can’t afford a lawyer, there are ways for her to get legal advice at important times in her case
  • Referrals: To services such as housing, childcare, counselling, lawyers, culturally specific supports

The family court experience for women who have left abuse

Women in heterosexual relationships are much more likely than men to be subjected to severe abuse by their partner. Women are also more likely to be primary caregivers of the children and to have lower incomes than their male partners. Family law does not recognize this gendered reality and treats former partners as having equal power in the relationship.

Abusers take advantage of the family law system and use it to try to control and harass their former partners. The abusive person may:

  • Self represent so that he can have contact with the woman throughout the case
  • Delay providing information to the court
  • Make complaints about the judge, lawyers and other officials
  • Make untrue claims in his legal documents, for example, that he was the children’s primary caregiver, that she’s a poor parent, that she interferes with his relationship with the children, that she’s abusive to him
  • Hide money and property from the court
  • Bring the woman back to court repeatedly
  • Refuse to follow court orders

Court officials may not understand the dynamics of abuse. Abusers are often charming and manipulative.

In comparison, the woman may have difficulties being calm and clear with court officials as she juggles many pressing concerns:

  • She has left an abusive relationship only to see the violence increase.
  • She is likely anxious about her safety and that of her children.
  • Her financial situation may be dire.
  • The trauma makes it difficult for her to learn and retain information about her case.
  • She is likely angry, fearful and exhausted.

What do safe family court outcomes look like?

Women with children need to feel confident that they can get family court outcomes that keep them and their children safe and that allow them to move on to lives free from violence and the threat of violence.

They need parenting orders that:

  • Reflect the best interests of the children, which includes a consideration of which parent has historically provided most of their care
  • Do not require women to consult with their former partner every time they need to make a decision about the children
  • Ensure the children have a safe relationship with their father, which may mean it has to be supervised
  • Provide exchanges for the children that are safe for the mother as well as the children

Women leaving abusive relationships may also need court orders to address:

  • Proper levels of child and spousal support
  • A fair division of family property
  • Their safety, which could mean a restraining order and/or an order for exclusive possession of the matrimonial home

Luke’s Place is there for women

Luke’s Place provides women in Durham Region with safety planning, family law information and support, and referrals to local services. Learn more about our services for women. To see the kinds of legal information and support strategies we provide women, visit our website, Family Court and Beyond.

We partner with lawyers to offer free family law advice to women in Durham Region and to women throughout the province with our Virtual Legal Clinic. Our lawyers provide this time as volunteers.

We also deliver training to legal and community advocates and conduct research on the intersection of family law and family violence.

Help support our efforts with a donation or find out how you can volunteer your time.


Maire Sinha, “Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends” (2013) Juristat, Ottawa: Statistics Canada, no 85-002-X.

Patricia Houle, Martin Turcotte & Michael Wendt, “Changes in parents’ participation in domestic tasks and care for children from 1986 to 2015.” Spotlight on Canadians: Results from the General Social Survey (2017) Ottawa: Statistics Canada no 89-652-X.

S. Uppal, “Employment patterns of families with children” Insights on Canadian Society, (June 2015) Statistics Canada no 75-006-X.

We use the term women to include all self-identified women (including two-spirited, cisgender or transgender women) 16 years of age and older.

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