What you don’t know can hurt you: The importance of family violence screening tools for family law practitioners

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Our new report on family violence screening tools for lawyers and other family law practitioners is now available from the Department of Justice Canada.

Family law lawyers are often the first point of contact for those entering the family justice system. They need to be aware of any abuse history as early as possible so that decisions made reflect the best interests of the children, the legal rights of the parties and the safety of abuse survivors.

Our research, which included a review of more than 80 screening tools used by professionals in a number of fields and jurisdictions, in Canada and beyond, found that:

  • Survivors of intimate partner violence are more likely to provide accurate information about what has happened to them when a screening tool is used
  • The more detailed the tool, the better the results
  • Anyone using a screening tool needs to be trained in understanding the dynamics of family violence, how to use the tool, how to interpret the results and what to do with the information gathered through the tool
  • There are few tools – none in Canada – that have been designed specifically for family law lawyers

We also learned that the use of a screening tool for family violence needs be carried out with care:

  • Legal practitioners should build rapport with your client before using it
  • A conversational context is better than just reading through a list of questions
  • Legal practitioners should not rely solely on the questions but also pay attention to contextual cues such as body language
  • Legal practitioners need to be prepared to follow up when there is an indication that family violence is present
  • A screening tool should be used at the first appointment and throughout the retainer, as safety issues can arise or change at any time during the case
  • Legal practitioners need to be prepared to discuss confidentiality, solicitor-client privilege and how you will use the information you collect with your client before you do any screening

Our report includes 10 recommendations as well as a screening tool template which legal practitioners might find helpful as they consider implementing screening.

The research for this report was conducted by Luke’s Place Legal Director, Pamela Cross, University of Guelph Professor Dr. Mavis Morton, Postdoctoral Fellow Sara Crann and JD/MBA Candidate Kate Mazzuocco. This project was funded by the Department of Justice Canada.

What Don’t Know Can Hurt You can be downloaded from the Department of Justice website.