Reasonable Doubt: How do we solve a problem like domestic violence?

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      In my time as a lawyer, I have dealt with domestic violence right at the various entry points where it trickles, seeps, and sometimes pours into the legal system. As a criminal defence lawyer, I have represented men and women accused of assaulting their partners. At other times, I have also given advice to and represented the men and women who were complainants in criminal cases of domestic violence. As a family lawyer, I deal with family violence daily. (In family cases, the proper term for domestic violence is “family violence”).

      My work does not make me an expert about domestic violence; in fact the issue of domestic violence in family relationships often perplexes me as a lawyer. When a client tells me about domestic violence in their family relationships, I have to assess what the best course of action is in order to protect my client’s best interests. Do we proceed with negotiation and mediation? Or do we go straight to court? Ultimately, I need to decide what the significance of family violence means for the newly separated family. Does my client need a protection order? Can the separated parents parent effectively together? 

      I also have to assess their case to determine what sort of evidence we have about domestic violence in the event their family case ends in court. To do this, I have to question and challenge my clients about the nature of domestic violence in their family relationships and ask them how they can prove it. Not surprisingly, the only proof available is what my client can tell me. Family violence still goes largely unreported.  Unfortunately when you’re alleging family violence, the other party has a tendency to deny it and respond with their own allegations. It is really difficult, if not impossible, to sort out fact from fiction.

      In my criminal law career, I understood that in cases of domestic assault, the complainants would often not show up to trial or would recant their statements to police shortly after charges were laid. The courts, seeing this pattern, adapted by reserving court time to set early trial dates for cases of domestic violence. The hope being that an early trial date will prevent a complainant from changing her mind about coming forward and justice will be served. Crown prosecutors adapted to the high collapse rate of domestic violence trials by making it a policy to push most cases of domestic violence through to trial or sentencing. Police are adapting by developing special domestic violence task forces and making it a point to forward more cases to Crown for charge approval.

      The legal system is instrumental in discussing and scrutinizing the issue of domestic violence. It was in 1990, in a case named R. v. Lavallee, that history was made in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized “battered woman syndrome” as a defence to murder. In Lavallee, Lyn Lavallee killed her boyfriend by shooting him in the back of the head when he was leaving the room after starting to beat her. Lavallee argued that her act was an act of self-defence.

      Self-defence, traditionally, is a very narrow defence to a crime, essentially the difference between self-defence and an assault or murder is that self-defence is the necessary use of force to repel an occurring attack. The force cannot be more than that which is necessary to protect oneself and get away.

      Expert testimony on “battered woman syndrome” was admitted at trial; it stated that women in repetitive abusive relationships react differently than men in self-defence, picking moments to strike back at their batterer when they are not in the course of being brutally attacked.

      Most importantly for posterity, the expert testimony accepted at trial, dispelled notions that women in abusive relationships like being abused and provoke violence. It also explained that it’s often not possible for an abused person to pick up and leave an abusive relationship. Finally, an understanding of domestic violence, which may have been prevalent in women’s rights groups and in academic circles, was made that much more legitimate when it was made law.

      Even though the courts are instrumental in addressing domestic violence, what I have seen makes me question the adequacy of our legal system to deal with domestic violence on a day-to-day basis. Domestic violence as a problem is one without a straightforward solution. While there are many recurring patterns to which our law and legal system can adapt, each case (family or criminal) has its own intricacies and consequences for many people directly and indirectly involved.

      Despite the good that the legal system can do to acknowledge, condemn, and punish domestic violence, for most people, criminal court or family court can often only ever provide short-term solutions or stop gap measures. Jail can only last so long and family court protection orders tend to be time limited. More realistically, when someone is intent on injuring another person, words in a court order are only words on a page and offer little protection to victims of abuse. 

      Laurel Dietz practices family law and criminal defence with Dogwood Law Corporation in Victoria, B.C. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. She can be followed on Twitter at You can send your questions for the column to its writers at A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.


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      Jun 6, 2014 at 11:00am

      As China is the only country I know of that takes the concept of childbirth within a stable relationship between mature adults seriously - by enforcing it with Draconian punishments - I think we will always have kids who grow up observing and therefore internalizing and basically accepting domestic violence.

      The public schools have the best opportunity to try to apply a software patch to these kids. They are expected to learn how to interact peaceably with their peers on the playground, so it does not seem to me to be a radical or impractical step to extend that guidance into their home lives as well - teach them that we should give what we hope to get, and so on.


      Jun 6, 2014 at 12:45pm

      Re: "when someone is intent on injuring another person, words in a court order are only words on a page and offer little protection to victims of abuse." with court orders being ignored so often culminating in murder, I can't understand why some of the most dangerous men being served court orders aren't required to wear a GPS-equipped bracelet that would notify both the police and person seeking protection, in the event of a court order breach.