Helping women facing violence

Deepa Mattoo’s work at the Barbra Schlifer legal clinic is part of a long-term strategy to train a new breed of lawyer. In August of last year, Deepa Mattoo started a new role as legal director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto — a busy space with a small staff at College and Bathurst Streets in Toronto that helps women who have experienced violence seek legal and emotional support.

Helping women facing violence
Photo: Robin Kuniski
Deepa Mattoo’s work at the Barbra Schlifer legal clinic is part of a long-term strategy to train a new breed of lawyer.

In August of last year, Deepa Mattoo started a new role as legal director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto — a busy space with a small staff at College and Bathurst Streets in Toronto that helps women who have experienced violence seek legal and emotional support.

For more than 30 years, the multi-lingual clinic has provided legal, counselling and interpreter services in 100 languages (Mattoo herself speaks six languages).

A few months later, Mattoo learned she was the recipient of the Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship from the Law Foundation of Ontario, a non-profit organization that funds other groups to provide education and initiatives on access to justice. Her research is examining the relationships between race, gender and immigration status during the year-long fellowship. It dovetails with her work of the last 10 years that has focused around the rights of non-status immigrant women.

It will specifically look at racialized women who have precarious immigration status and the gaps they face in accessing support not just for legal services but health care, housing and childcare. She has teamed up with the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, academics from the law and sociology faculties and the Rights of Non-Status Women Network for the project.

This spring, Mattoo began offering workshops to share the results of her study with law and social work students, settlement workers, lawyers and key agencies in Ontario that assist with non-status immigrants. The goal is to develop a tool kit — a live document she describes as a “social services wiki” — that can be updated by social service agencies.

In a way, it’s a culmination of the work she’s been doing in Canada over the last 17 years focusing on gender-based violence and how immigration policies, such as sponsorship rules, affect immigrant women negatively.

Her job at the Schlifer clinic is to oversee the various aspects of the important work the clinic does including assessment of the legal issues faced by the clients who contact them. Clients typically call the clinic via a centralized telephone line and then are triaged to determine the services they need. They are then sent for a legal assessment; Mattoo supervises that assessment program and from there the clients are allocated to either the immigration division or family law division. The immigration group includes just one paid staff lawyer, an articling student and Mattoo, who also practises immigration law.

The family law division has two lawyers supported by articling students as well as students from other programs including two students from Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program.
There is also a feminist advocacy coach from Osgoode Hall Law School whom she supervises as well. Three workers are also funded through the Ministry of the Attorney General under the family court support workers program.

“Because we are so small, having student programs ensures we have extra hands on deck — this is a high-volume clinic,” she says.

She also oversees policy development for the clinic but Mattoo is largely involved in client risk management — determining how at risk the women are who come through their doors and what services they need.

The clinic conducts between 150 and 300 assessments every month. “We have a very high volume — having the students helps us, but also from a long-term strategy, we’re also creating a new breed of lawyers who are sensitive to the issues of violence against women; they know how to practise with clients in a trauma-informed way,” she says.

The Schlifer clinic, which opened in 1985, relies heavily on fundraising to augment the resources it receives from federal and provincial sources. “We are not a legal aid clinic. We are unique in how we are funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General for our programming,” she says.

 “We take care of clients who don’t meet the cut-off for legal aid and clients who cannot afford services because they don’t make enough money or don’t have enough resources.”

While funding for the clinic’s annual budget of about $3.5 million comes largely from the province and some federal funding recently for specific projects, fundraising is key to the clinic’s survival. Mattoo calls it “a small but mighty fundraising arm” that includes its Annual Tribute event held in June. “The challenge is the more you rely on fundraising, the more precarious you become as an organization. Services are ever-increasing, but funding doesn’t always increase in the same proportion,” she says.

The clinic is very focused on helping those women who have faced violence in their relationships and need specialized care. “One other criteria for us when working with clients is to look at their level of risk. We have such a niche in terms of dealing with violence against women we look at whether our service is well suited to each client and we do have a very unified risk assessment,” she says.

Clients come to the Schlifer clinic from a variety of sources, including social services agencies, via the clinic website and via referral from the private bar and victim services through the courts.

Sadly, the number of women walking through the clinic door continues to rise. The clinic assists about 4,000 women every year. Since opening its doors three decades ago, the clinic has assisted more than 60,000 women. And with recent high-profile cases around sexual assault and the rights of women in the legal system, its caseload has increased dramatically.

The clinic is also part of an independent legal advice (not representation) pilot project providing free assistance to survivors of sexual assault in Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay, Ont. The ILA pilot program began in the summer of 2016 at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic and will run for two years offering survivors of sexual assault in Toronto, who are over the age of 16, free confidential legal advice from an independent legal adviser. The clinic is also training private bar lawyers as part of the program. “I feel like that is one of our biggest challenges we have right now because there is a lot of attention on sexual assault and investigations,” says Mattoo, adding the public attention around the issue has “opened the floodgates” to a lot of different ancillary issues connected to those seeking help.

Mattoo questions whether the clinic will be able to continue to support the volume of need coming its way via the pilot program. “We are receiving a higher volume of calls. There are also women getting triggered because of the media attention around this issue and they need support as well,” she says.

The clinic also sees a higher percentage of women who identify as immigrants or from racialized backgrounds. “It also goes hand in hand with the fact we work in over 100 languages and provide a variety of innovative services,” she says.

Mattoo brings to her job the knowledge of so many cases she has worked on before but also the immigrant and minority experience. She was the first in her family to go to law school. She was also a minority in her law school class in India in terms of gender — less than 10 per cent were women. After attending Maharshi Dayanand University in India, Mattoo went on to earn a Master of Business Administration from Leeds Beckett University in the U.K. “I knew I wanted to do something with social justice, but didn’t know that women’s rights would be where I would be working most of my life,” she says. “I started with the criminal justice side and I’m glad things have come full circle because I do get to do some criminal justice work here at the clinic.”

Early in her career, she worked for not-for-profits in India and The United Kingdom. In India, her first interaction was with the rights of women widowed in India and abandoned by their families just because they were widowed.“If you think about it in Canadian context, it doesn’t make sense why someone would be abandoned by their family, but in an Indian context it was easier for me to understand. It still happens today. All those learnings have created the foundation for who I am today,” she says.

Like many of the clients she sees, Mattoo came to Canada with her husband as a sponsored bride — they knew each other from law school days in India.

“I chose to come and join him. So I’ve been the sponsored woman coming here to Canada. It had its own challenges,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of work around sponsorship and sponsorship reunification especially in the context of spousal sponsorship, so I definitely, from a personal space, understand the challenges of that and what it does to a relationship — I’ve lived that experience and understand it from close experience.”

Challenges continue in terms of counselling women who find themselves caught up in immigration rules the Trudeau government vowed to address when it was elected. In 2012, the Harper government introduced a two-year conditional permanent residence requirement for spousal sponsorship. Mattoo said it created a relationship of servitude between a sponsored spouse and their sponsor. The changes to conditional permanent residency status are still yet to be made. “People are left without direction. Women are still facing issues and abuse when they land. My clients still feel precarious,” she says.

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