Should domestic violence courses be mandatory in law school?

While law schools continue to implement mandatory classes on domestic violence for first-year students, the burden to solve domestic violence cases should not fall on law schools alone, says one Queen’s University law professor.

“The vast majority of issues have to be addressed by those who are in the justice system,” says Bala. “For example I am doing some work with others about having an integrated domestic violence court in Toronto that deals with family law and criminal law cases.”

In fact, spousal violence and spousal homicide has been continually declining, says Bala.

“Major focus has to be on what is being done to educate, support, equip — whether they are lawyers or judges or police,” he says.

The Law Society of Upper Canada has recommended implementing a mandatory domestic violence curriculum by 2015, for the most part law schools already have elements of domestic law education within their standard curriculum.

“We don’t have a discrete course in domestic violence training, but what we do make sure is that students get access and exposure to issues of sexual and domestic  violence in some of our mandatory courses,” says Erika Chamberlain, associate dean and professor of law at Western University.

“At Queen’s law school, although officially we don’t identify domestic violence, all students who take criminal law at this law school receive some introductory exposure to domestic violence issues. It is also part of our family law course, which most students take,” says Bala.

Chamberlain says at Western, “Recently we have added courses, for example, in gendered violence to our upper-year curriculum and I think there is a growth in student interest in that area as well. We also have added a clinical program in family law which gives students some real life exposure to those issues.”

Luckily most law students have not have had personal experiences with domestic violence, thus their education on the subject begins at school. Yet, while a general introduction course on domestic violence issues may be useful, it is normally not enough to prepare a student for real-life domestic violence situations.

Courses in human behaviour and psychology as well as a natural knack for reading people may be more useful in this case. Chamberlain says students who study in criminal and family law areas, as well as participate in clinical programs are best equipped to deal with domestic violence cases.

“A lot of it is really being able to read people, so when people come in to your office, you can pick up on some of those cues and that is not something we can necessarily teach in a classroom,” says Chamberlain.

While the Law Society of Upper Canada does not have authority to dictate curriculum, only suggest it, law schools do take the suggestions seriously, says Bala.

Creating law school curriculum is a complex and lengthy process that must involve careful consideration of many important issues that law students must be educated on via a mandatory curriculum, before moving on to their chosen field of law.

“There is an ongoing discussion in every law school about what should be mandatory and what should be optional, and what should be up to the individual professors,” says Bala.

The primary responsibility for deciding what is a compulsory part of the curriculum rests with the federation of law societies, which identifies a long list of skills and competencies, and it has not put domestic violence on the agenda, says Bala. However, individual law schools can still make certain courses compulsory.

“Law schools are doing all that is legally required,” says Bala. “Domestic violence cuts across many areas, criminal law, family law, wills and estates, real estate law, but the reality is that for some lawyers, it’s not going to be very relevant. So this question of ‘should it be mandatory or not?’ is understandably not self evident.”

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