Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone


Imagining courts that work for women

As a feminist and a woman who has engaged with the police and courts as a result of male violence, I have to admit to some ambivalence about the role the criminal justice system can play in promoting women’s safety and empowerment. However, in my capacity as coordinator of Pivot’s Jane Doe Legal Network, which provides legal support and education to women whose lives have been impacted by male violence, I have come to recognize that the police and the courts are critical elements of a holistic strategy for addressing violence against women in relationships.

Historically, violence against women in relationships was considered a private matter and women who were assaulted by partners, acquaintances or strangers were often accused of inviting the violence. While these beliefs have certainly not been eradicated, they have been challenged by 30+ years of feminist activism.  Yet, improving the justice system response to violence against women requires more than addressing lingering attitudinal issues, there are also many structural ways in which the criminal justice system is ill-equipped for responding to gendered violence.

At its core, the criminal justice system is designed to focus on the facts of a single criminal incident, while violence against women in intimate relationships tends to involve patterns of behaviour that escalate over time. The adversarial nature of the traditional legal system and the focus on securing a conviction can leave women feeling shut out or re-victimized through the process while alternative measures, such a restorative justice and mediation, fail to take into account the dynamics of power and control that underlie domestic violence.  Our current system is not set up to address  the realities that lead women to stay with, or return to, abusive partners,  or to deal with the fact that even when women do leave for good, they are often bound to the abuser through financial ties or shared custody of children.

In recognition of the complex dynamics that underpin violence against women in relationships, many jurisdictions have developed specialized domestic violence courts. There are significant differences among these courts, but generally they all focus on decreasing court processing times and providing a focal point for programs and services for victims and offenders. In some cases they also employ specialized police, Crown prosecutors and judiciary. Currently, BC is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada without specializes domestic violence courts.

In the fall of 2010, Pivot got together with the UBC Centre for Feminist Legal Studies and Battered Women’s Support Services to organize a forum looking at the benefits and pitfalls of specialized domestic violence courts. My motivation for spearheading the forum was to determine whether or not this was an option that we should be advocating for here in BC.  After an evening of discussion with experts from across the country, I felt that while there are courts and other programs that address some of the concerns the women I work with have about the way the criminal justice system responds to gendered violence there is not one model that I could point to and say “this is exactly what we need here in BC.”

So now, in collaboration with a group of frontline service providers who work with women who have been through the court process, Pivot is working on developing recommendations for changes to the way the justice system responds to violence against women. We are interested in taking the best aspects of the models that are out there and developing strategies for bringing them to BC. We are inviting women to share their experiences and thoughts about the way courts are dealing with violence against women and to provide input into our final position paper and recommendations.

If you are interested in sharing a story, don’t hesitate to get in touch: darcie [at] pivotlegal [dot] org