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She’s been through the justice system before; she knows the drill. And as someone who’s been subjected to violence by a partner many times, she’s not encouraged.
“It’s not the police,” the St. John’s-area woman explains. “The police have been good, really good. But they can only do so much before their hands are tied, and then I guess I have to ask myself, what’s the point?”
In her mid-30s, the woman - who spoke to SaltWire Network on condition of anonymity - has a longtime on-again, off-again relationship with her partner. When he’s good to her, he’s really good, she says. When he’s not, he’s criminal.
She’s had the bruises to prove it.
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) has stepped in every time she has called them, helping ensure her immediate safety, offering resources, and, multiple times, charging her partner with assault.
The court process hasn’t been as helpful, the woman says, and has left her at times feeling more at risk than before she had reported the violence.
Her abuser has been convicted on numerous occasions of charges like assault, uttering threats, and criminal harassment.
“You know how people always say that stupid thing like ‘You get more for poaching a moose’ than some other crime? I know the way the court works isn’t as easy as people think it should be, I get that. I know there are rules to follow and the judges can’t just throw the book at everyone even if they want to," she says.
"But it’s time to set a precedent for this type of thing. It’s time for someone to put their foot down and tell people, ‘You do this, you’re going to pay for it in court,’ and for everyone else to follow. It’s time to do something to actually protect the victims.”
The courts, the woman says, generally aren't a comforting place for victims of intimate partner violence. She’s met friendly prosecutors, helpful Victim Services staff, and judges who understand that abusive relationships aren’t black and white and that it’s not as simple as leaving someone who hurts you, she explains. She acknowledges she has declined to testify in the past, feeling it just wasn’t worth it.
“When you know he’s only going to get something minor (for a sentence) and then come looking for you, angry, why would you put yourself through that? A piece of paper telling him he’s not allowed to have any contact with you isn’t going to do much.”
Report calls for change
The lack of power of a no-contact order is something victims’ advocates and others have been pointing out for years. Almost exactly 26 years ago, the Law Reform Commission of Nova Scotia released a report examining ways in which the province’s legal system could better respond to intimate partner violence.
“Since the law in Canada already clearly prohibits harassment, threats and all forms of physical violence, it is clear that the existing law is not obeyed or respected,” the commission’s executive director, Moira McConnell, said at the time the “From Rhetoric to Reality: Ending Domestic Violence in Nova Scotia” report was released.
“If the present law is not effective, is the solution more law or asking why the existing laws aren’t working? Clearly, abusers are not deterred from their criminal behaviour by the words of the law, so will more words on paper, whether as legislation or as a court order alone do more?”
The commission concluded, after conducting research, consultations, and evaluation of provincial, national and international studies, that changes to the law would be good; changes in the way the existing laws are implemented would be even better. Laws are useless in deterring people unless there are believed serious consequences to breaking them.
If you search “Canadian Criminal Code assault” and Google will give you a list of common related phrases searched by others.
The top one? “How to beat an assault charge in Canada.”
“The way in which the law is interpreted by police, lawyers, judges, and legal system personnel sends a message to all of society as to what is or is not acceptable behaviour,” the Nova Scotia commission said in a media release in 1995.
“The report takes the view that the government has to decide how to ensure that its policy against domestic violence is implemented at all levels and that there is a clear and consistent message that this behaviour is criminal, unacceptable and will be punished.”
The Criminal Code sets out the available range of sentencing for crimes, giving a maximum and, in some cases, a minimum sentence, which varies based on the specific circumstances of a case and degree of severity of an offence.
A common assault sentence or a charge of uttering threats to cause death or harm to a person can range from a discharge to five years in prison. A conviction for criminal harassment - included in the Criminal Code as of 1993 - can earn up to 10 years behind bars in the worst-case scenario.
Prosecutors and judges are bound by the limits of sentencing in the code and by previous similar cases. By law, the court must apply a sentence similar to what others have received for the same offence in similar circumstances.
Provincial court Judge Wayne Gorman of Corner Brook, NL has quoted from the report in sentencing decisions. Gorman doesn’t mince words when it comes to intimate partner violence, often stressing in his written decisions the need for the courts to take a “different approach” from no-contact orders and for stronger consequences for offenders who abuse their partners.
“How many times can a man assault or threaten a former intimate female partner, while (as is often the case) bound by a court order not to have contact with her, until an exemplary sentence is imposed?” Gorman wrote in January 2020.
“In other words, when is enough, enough?"
No real protection
Court orders provide victims of intimate partner violence with little real protection, the judge has noted on multiple occasions.
The assault charge – court order – breach charge has become a paper game, says Michelle Greene, executive director of Iris Kirby House in St. John’s.
“There has to be more than a no-contact order, or all they’ll end up with is a breach,” she said.
The potential to be charged with breaching a court order – a conviction that routinely garners a sentence of 30 days or less — doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent, she said, based on the number of times abusers have visited the shelter to look for their partner or to slash tires.
“A breach is nothing to the abuser, but to the woman, oh my God, it’s huge,” Greene said.
Greene believes the court should take a more individualized approach when it comes to court orders, recognizing that the cycle of violence is often rooted in trauma. That’s an explanation, and not an excuse for the criminal behaviour, she stresses.
Newfoundland and Labrador is one of several provinces with a specialized criminal court within the provincial court system for intimate partner violence. The Family Violence Intervention Court in St. John’s has the goal of addressing the causes of the issue, seeing offenders acknowledge their crimes and commit to participating in rehabilitation programming in exchange for a lighter sentence. Victims receive supports as well.
The St. John’s woman who spoke to The Telegram feels it’s a good thing — if the court can do something to protect victims in the process.
“The punishments aren’t working, obviously,” she says.
“They’re not helping me and they’re not doing anything to make (my abuser) understand, like actually understand, that this can’t go on. If family violence court can do that, let’s go. I need more protection than a no-contact order, yeah, but I also need the court to get it through the head of every violent person out there that this is just destroying the victims.”
- Transition House Association of Nova Scotia
- P.E.I. Family Violence Prevention Services
- NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line
Resources by Province
- FACETS OF FAMILY VIOLENCE: 'Take the veil of silence away': Cyberbullying another kind of domestic abuse
- FACETS OF FAMILY VIOLENCE: 'I feel like I always have to watch my back' - Woman hopes cyberbullying law can stop ex-girlfriend's alleged harassment
- FACETS OF FAMILY VIOLENCE: 'I'm finally feeling safe' - Nova Scotia domestic violence survivor shares story of escape