New court integrates domestic violence and family court cases
TORONTO - In a first for the Canadian justice system, a new initiative in Ontario aimed at minimizing the hardships for families in crisis is merging some family court and domestic violence cases.
The Integrated Domestic Violence Court will serve people who are dealing with family court issues as well as a criminal charges related to domestic abuse. It will run on a pilot project basis in one Toronto courthouse with an eye to expanding in the province if it's deemed a success. In the works for a year-and-a-half, the court heard its first case Friday.
The province, the judiciary and the many community organizations involved in establishing the court hope it will resolve such difficult issues faster, with less conflict and more affordably with a one-case, one-judge approach.
"We think that that will lead to a more integrated, holistic approach, a greater understanding of what the issues are in the family, more consistent orders," said Peter Griffiths, the associate chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice.
In the existing system, families dealing both with issues in family court and with a domestic violence-related charge must navigate two different processes, going at different speeds and with the potential for conflicting orders.
If one spouse is charged with domestic violence and the other is seeking custody of children, for example, the two courts could be issuing conflicting orders.
"It can create havoc in the family," Griffiths said. "The emphasis in this court really is on a more mediated, less adversarial system."
It can be quite onerous on anyone, let alone the victim of a domestic assault, to have to be involved with two completely separate court cases, said family lawyer Lauren Israel, who was on the project's advisory committee.
"The clients that this court will be servicing are under tremendous emotional stress and I think that trying to . . . minimize the stress involved in process will benefit everybody," she said.
Attorney General Chris Bentley said the court is largely aimed at helping women, who are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence, but will also benefit children and the family unit as a whole.
"You want to hold offenders accountable for what they've done," he said in an interview. "You want to safeguard victims and families from any future harm, but you also want to resolve the issues that are outstanding as effectively as you can so that families can get on with the future."
As someone who works with women who are victims of domestic violence, Lisa Manuel said the court is "well overdue."
"The concept of an integrated court is wonderful because that really meets the needs of women," said Manuel, the director of the family violence program at Family Service Toronto.
It can be a challenge to physically navigate between the two courts because in some cities they're not even in the same building, let alone trying to deal with the stress of such situations, she said.
Manuel said she has heard of instances where in order to comply with both a custody order and a restraining order, one parent takes a child to a parking lot and the other parent is waiting at the far end. The child then has to walk from one end to the other so neither of the orders are violated, she said.
The court, which will be held in the courthouse at 311 Jarvis St., in Toronto, is thought to be unique in Canada and was developed based on a model in place in New York. It will also have a community resource worker who can connect families to services that address the issues that brought them to court in the first place.
Participation in the court is voluntary and it is not a trial court. So if the person charged with domestic violence wants to go to trial instead of pleading guilty, that case would be sent back to criminal court.
In the early stages, cases will be heard in the court every other Friday. Divorce and family property cases will still be heard in Superior Court.