The Special Needs of Survivors of Family Violence in the Family Court Process: Comments on Justice Bonkalo’s “Family Legal Services Review”

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A significant portion of all cases in family court involve family violence. Any changes to court process must examine the needs of these families.

Luke’s Place and the Barbra Schlifer Clinic have a unique perspective on the complex realities of family law and courts for survivors of family violence. This comes from our combined work with women who have left abusive relationships and are engaged with family law/family court process, particularly through the work each of our agencies does delivering the Ministry of the Attorney General funded Family Court Support Worker program in Durham and Toronto, respectively.

In addition to delivering the services, Luke’s Place is responsible for initial and ongoing training of these workers across the province, and has recently completed a 3-year contract with Legal Aid Ontario to provide domestic violence training to its staff as well as community legal clinics and per diem lawyers.

The Schlifer Clinic’s 30-year history of delivering family law representation, support and advice in its intersections with criminal and immigration law, adds to the gravitas of this perspective.

Our perspective and concerns are based on our deep experiential knowledge and are supported and underscored by reports, inquests and academic research. We reference in particular the regular reports of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, Transforming our Communities (Domestic Violence Advisory Council Final Report 2009) and It Shouldn’t Be This Hard: A gender-based analysis of family law, family court and violence against women (Luke’s Place, 2012).

We shared our perspective and knowledge with Justice Bonkalo during the consultation process, as did a number of our colleagues.

We are extremely disappointed by the thin reference to family/domestic violence in Justice Bonkalo’s final report.

These cases make up some of the most serious that move through Ontario’s family courts: serious in terms of immediate and long-term physical and emotional safety for litigants and their children and serious in terms of legal outcomes that can impact a family for many years into the future. Cases involving family violence make up a significant portion of all cases in family court. They also use significant court resources and take a great deal of time.

Any discussion of changes to the court process, including a potential change as significant as the licencing of paralegals to provide family court legal services, must include an examination of the needs of survivors of family violence if those changes are to provide meaningful increase in access to justice and ensure the safety of those most at risk of lethal outcomes.

Read our recommendations.