Part of being a competent lawyer is understanding your clients, and despite what area of law you practise in, you may face issues related to domestic violence.
“A lawyer needs to know how to interact with someone who has experienced violence because it can have devastating effects on that individual,” says Patricia Hughes, executive director of the Law Commission of Ontario.
That is why the LCO is encouraging law schools to teach students about violence against women.
In a recent report, the LCO introduced five modules that provide a framework on incorporating education on violence against women into the curriculum:
1. an introduction to violence against women
2. setting a foundational context
3. family law and violence against women
4. criminal law and violence against women
5. ethics, professionalism, and practice considerations
Currently, law students gain a limited understanding of these issues in their mandatory criminal law class, but the LCO wants to see that expanded to family law courses, ethics and professionalism courses, and possibly clinical education.
“The goal is that every law student who graduates has had some exposure to these issues,” says Hughes.
Lawyers need to know how to recognize the signs of violence and be able to respond, she adds.
Shelley Quinn, chairwoman of the Ontario Bar Association’s Feminist Legal Analysis section, says the statistics on violence against women are staggering.
According to Statistics Canada information from 2010, 70 per cent of family violence victims are female and women are victims of spousal homicide at a rate that is three times higher than men.
Given the documented evidence of violence against women in Canadian society, there is significant value in the LCO’s modules, argues Quinn.
“If we could prevent even one woman from dying at the hands of her male partner, it’s really worthwhile,” she says.
Quinn says it’s important for lawyers to know how to handle these issues when they arise in a case.
“You’re going to see people trained about domestic violence at shelters, social service agencies, and doctors’ offices — why not lawyers?” she says. “If we’re serious about family violence we need to educate all front-line workers, and lawyers are just part of that.”
Nicholas Bala, a family law professor at Queen’s University, has done extensive research on family violence. He was also a member of the LCO report’s advisory group.
“The issues related to family violence, domestic violence, abuse against women, abuse against children, and elder abuse I think are very important and should be part of a law school curriculum,” he says.
Bala recognizes that law schools already provide some exposure to these issues through their criminal law and family law courses, but “we could do a better job,” he says.
However, it’s a tricky balance for law schools, he says, because there is significant pressure on them to educate students on all social issues.
“This can and should be incorporated into a law school curriculum in a number of different places, but it’s only one of many, many issues that law schools are being asked to address, and there are realistic limits to what we can do, particularly with present resources,” says Bala.
The report also suggests incorporating education on violence against women in a clinical setting.
The University of Windsor Faculty of Law recently decided to no longer represent men or women accused of domestic violence through its Community Legal Aid program.
The decision came after a controversial memo from dean Camille Cameron which stated, “there will be no further intakes of domestic violence or peace bond cases unless the alleged offender is a woman.”
Bala acknowledges that legal clinics need to set priorities due to a lack of resources, but “I don’t think they should be doing it on a gender-based basis,” he says.