HELP is here!

Women who have left relationships in which their partners have abused them are often reluctant to disclose this information to their lawyer when they begin a family law case. For many, the abuse is a long-kept family secret. They carry shame for having “let themselves” become involved with an abusive partner; they fear retribution by their partner if they tell anyone what has happened; they worry that telling their lawyer may mean automatic involvement by police or child protection authorities; they don’t want their children to find out about the abuse, not realizing that children are almost always all too aware of what is going on; they think they might not be believed.

Often, women hope that they can sort out issues like parenting arrangements, property and financial matters and move on in their lives without ever having to talk about the abuse. Some have never told anyone, not even a close friend or family member, so they are not likely to spontaneously open up to a stranger like their lawyer. As a result, their lawyer may be completely unaware of the history of abuse and ongoing physical and psychological safety concerns, meaning they cannot give the woman the best possible legal advice and representation.

Identifying abuse

In 2017, with a grant from Justice Canada, Luke’s Place conducted research to examine the usefulness of standardized family violence screening tools in the family law context. Our research, which looked at screening tools used in legal and medical settings in several countries in addition to Canada, found that when lawyers, supported by training about family violence, used a standardized tool to screen for its presence, the rate of accurate identification increased significantly.

In the four years since, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken a number of steps to follow up on the research findings. These activities coincided with significant changes to the parenting provisions in both the Divorce Act and Ontario’s Children’s Law Reform Act, which now include a comprehensive definition of family violence; a mandatory factor to be considered when courts make decisions related to children.

Last year, the DOJ released an online course called “Family Violence and Family Law for Legal Advisors,” to support lawyers in learning more about family violence as it relates to family law and the issues that arise there. (The Law Society of Ontario offered its first-ever two day program on family violence for family lawyers in the fall of 2021.)

In January of this year, the DOJ announced the public release of the HELP Toolkit: Identifying and Responding to Family Violence for Family Law Legal Advisors, developed by DOJ, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Department of Women and Gender Equality Canada, working with an expert advisory group and subject-matter experts. Feedback was provided throughout the process by legal advisors, frontline service providers, researchers, lawyer associations, provincial and territorial government officials and others, and the draft toolkit was extensively tested across the country.


Lawyers are encouraged to:

Have an initial discussion about family violence

Explore immediate risks and safety concerns

Learn more about the family violence to help determine what to recommend to the client

Promote safety throughout the family law case

Suggestions and tips are provided to help lawyers raise the issue of family violence with clients: a topic that can feel delicate or awkward to those not used to talking about it. This is supported by supplemental resources that address why clients may not disclose, the impacts of trauma and the types and prevalence of family violence.

Legal professionals are given tools to assist them in understanding the gendered nature of family violence as well as the effect of intersectional identities and experiences, with links to additional materials that explore these topics in greater detail.

As the toolkit points out, identifying the presence of intimate partner violence is not a one-time activity. Lawyers need to be prepared to return to these discussions throughout the life of the file since, when initially asked, some survivors will not yet be ready to open up. As well, the nature, frequency and seriousness of the abuse often changes over the course of the legal proceedings.

Clients will be better served when their lawyer is able to identify points in the case when risk may increase (for example, when legal documents are served or when an important court or mediation date is coming up). The lawyer can ensure the woman is aware of these higher risk moments, so she can take steps to protect herself and her children. The toolkit includes a chart that sets out risks for ongoing violence as well as lethality risk factors, and the supplemental materials include a section on safety planning.

The toolkit also contains a legal response guide that covers such topics as parenting arrangements, protecting the safety of the survivor and children and financial issues, looking at each of them in the context of family violence. Litigation abuse (often called legal bullying) is discussed, as are the pros and cons of alternative dispute resolution in these cases.

While the resource primarily looks at identifying family violence for lawyers who are retained by the survivor, there is also material to assist those who represent clients who have or may have engaged in family violence.

The HELP Toolkit offers much to support lawyers who want to know more about family violence, while also increasing their skills and comfort in addressing this issue with clients. It’s also important for lawyers is to engage with community organizations providing services to both survivors and perpetrators of family violence, so they can provide meaningful referrals for clients who need those supports.

From my perspective as a lawyer working with survivors of IPV, this toolkit is an excellent resource that will increase the confidence and competence of family law legal advisors, thus increasing access to justice for those who have left abusive relationships and are striving to rebuild their lives free from abuse and the threat of abuse. Justice Canada is to be commended for its commitment to this work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *