Transforming law into justice: part one of three

In the past several weeks, two men have died while in prison: the man found guilty of killing three women in Renfrew County on September 22, 2015, and the man convicted of the murders of six women (of the 27 whose deaths he was charged with) between 1997 and 2001. Those deaths reignited my thinking about the differences between law and justice.

In the immediate aftermath of both deaths, I received a number of calls from journalists asking me to comment; all of which I declined.  What could I have said? That their deaths were some kind of eye for an eye justice? That justice had been done? Good riddance to bad rubbish?

But that’s not how I felt. I certainly didn’t mourn their deaths, but neither did I feel they were cause for public celebration. Their deaths would not bring back to life the women whose deaths they had caused. Perhaps, for some family members and friends, their deaths brought some relief, and for that I am glad.

What does justice look like?

I may not have said anything publicly about the deaths of either man, but I spent a lot of time thinking about them in the context of what our criminal system is intended to do and what it could, perhaps, come to do.

First, I thought about the words of Malcolm Warmerdam — whose mother, Nathalie, was one of the women murdered in Renfrew County nine years ago – when he spoke on the first day of the CKW inquest. He reminded us that even those who cause unspeakable harms to others are not monsters; rather, like the rest of us, they are made up of good and bad. And, while he felt that by the time his mother encountered the man who would later kill her it was likely too late for him to be able to change, Malcolm suggested that interventions earlier in the man’s life might have created such opportunities.

Then, I remembered my own thoughts about how the criminal law should respond to IPV, back when I was a practising lawyer. I was not naïve about the law, having seen its failures in many ways before I even went to law school. But I did believe that it stood as a means to hold people accountable for their wrong-doings and to protect victims from further harm.

I believed, as American law professor Leigh Goodmark has written about her own experience:

“that swift and harsh intervention by the criminal legal system was essential to stop violence [against women].”

Many of my clients were frustrated that the criminal system did not seem to take the violence to which they were being subjected – especially when it was what we now call coercive control – seriously. They wondered why their partners were not charged, prosecuted or found guilty and why, if they were found guilty, the consequences to them were minimal. Some of them were charged, and they wondered even more about what the point was of calling the police.

I shared their frustrations then – and I still do today. When a woman who has been victimized by intimate partner violence engages or tries to engage with the criminal system, she deserves to be believed, taken seriously and treated with respect.

However, I have watched that criminal system fail survivors again and again.

Once more, in the words of Leigh Goodmark:

“The criminal legal system was not deterring or decreasing intimate partner violence, and criminalization had serious negative consequences for the people it was meant to benefit. . . . Criminalization was meant to increase awareness of gender-based violence and decrease that violence by changing community norms about its acceptability. But those efforts have also led to increased rates of arrest, prosecution, conviction and incarceration of those who the changes were mean to protect – victims of violence.”

A failing grade

The criminal law doesn’t just fail survivors. It also fails those who cause the harm. One of its goals is to reduce the likelihood that perpetrators will continue to engage in criminal activity and, at least in the area of IPV, it has been largely unsuccessful at this.

The criminal system does not encourage perpetrators to take accountability for what they have done; in fact, it discourages such accountability. And penalties for those found guilty do little, if anything, to help people heal from the harms that have been visited upon them or to learn new, non-violent ways of behaving.  (Just read the life stories of the men I referred to in my opening or of the perpetrator of the Nova Scotia mass casualty event, whose actions were rooted in a long history of violence against women, to know how damaged all three of these men were from the time they were children.)

Along the way, that system also inappropriately charges and convicts survivors of intimate partner violence, piling just one more injustice on top of all the others.

The failures of the criminal system go beyond those immediately involved: we are all harmed by gender-based violence and by the failures of the criminal law to address it effectively. First and foremost, of course, are family members – including children – and friends, but it doesn’t end there. As I learned during the community consultations I facilitated throughout Renfrew County before the 2022 inquest began, many members of the community had been profoundly affected by the triple femicide and were still feeling the effects of it almost seven years later.

The current criminal system doesn’t work, so we need to find another approach.

Next week: What do we need to learn?

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