While there have been important legal strides made to protect women and children experiencing domestic violence over the years, such as the recent amendments to the Divorce Act, there remain numerous barriers to accessing justice for survivors of violence. For victims, these barriers show up almost immediately when navigating the various systems that step in once domestic violence is reported to legal authorities. These barriers take various forms, whether it’s systemic, geographical, or financial. For those navigating these systems, it can often feel like maneuvering through a game of chutes and ladders on a board staked with chutes.
First and foremost, the services available to victims of domestic violence are often determined by their geographical location. Women and children in rural areas of our province do not have the same level of access to services as those in urban areas. This includes provincial Victims Services offices, RCMP or police detachments, women’s and sexual assault centers, law offices, and mental health and addictions centers. Typically, more densely populated urban centers have a greater number of community services and programs for those who report domestic violence. For those living outside of these urban centers, this means either travelling long distances to access these services or simply going without them.
If a victim can connect with these services, the barriers do not disappear. In some instances, the very systems that are meant to step in and protect victims of violence can cause further harm. Once domestic violence is reported to authorities, the case will go through the criminal and/or family courts. In many cases, the legal system and its courts are used as another tool in a perpetrator’s arsenal to abuse and harass victims once they leave. Perpetrators will use the courts as a method to continue to engage with the victim, often employing tactics to delay the legal process and to force the victim into a continuous legal back-and-forth for years. For example, it’s not uncommon for abusers to frequently retain new lawyers to slow down proceedings or represent themselves so that they may cross-examine the person they’re abusing. In some cases, the lack of a legal connection between criminal and family court systems means that victims may need to attend two contradictory trials and give evidence twice.
The involvement of the courts often also poses a financial barrier for victims. Those who are unable to afford their own representation must wait long periods of time before being assigned a lawyer through Legal Aid. These lawyers can carry heavy caseloads and be overburdened by the system, meaning that they often meet their clients for the first time in court. This leaves victims in a sort of legal limbo, where they are particularly vulnerable to post-separation abuse. Even those who are afforded a temporary court order while waiting for their matter to go through the courts, such as an emergency protection order, are not guaranteed safety as these are often breached and not enforced by the proper authorities.
If children are involved in the abuse or are witness to it, Child Protective Services becomes one of the many actors who intervene. In some situations, CPS and the courts may deem that both parents have equal right to access the children and will arrange visits with both parents. These visits can be back-to-back, meaning that the abuser and the victim must come into contact. In other cases, the victim is responsible for arranging the exchange of the children, once again forcing them to contact their abuser. This leaves anyone who cares for the children to be pulled back into an emotionally or physically unsafe environment.
Once a victim and their families finally navigate these systems and interact with these various actors, they are still left with practical challenges. One of the most prominent is a lack of housing. When victims and their families flee domestic violence, they must leave their home and all their personal belongings behind. While emergency shelters and transitional housing exist for victims of violence, these are not permanent solutions. Without safe and affordable housing options, victims and their families are left homeless and are forced to stay within temporary housing. In this vein, the current housing crisis in our province is another barrier for victims of domestic violence.
It’s also important to keep in mind that while the above sheds light on the barriers for those who report violence to the authorities, many cases of domestic violence go unreported. The various barriers that exist when reporting violence means that there are many practical reasons why victims sometimes avoid reporting abuse to authorities, including as a method to stay safe and avoid an escalation in violence post-separation or to keep their families together under one roof. Principally, until we address these barriers, justice and safety will continue to remain inaccessible for victims of domestic violence.