Surviving family court

When I practised law in the mid to late 1990s, most of my clients were women leaving abusive relationships who were involved with family court. My main job, of course, was to provide them with legal representation, and I did that to the best of my ability.

But many of those clients were so traumatized by the abuse to which they had been subjected that they needed more than straight-up lawyering. Those who were accessing community services got some of what they needed there. Those who were close to their families got support from them. Friends also played an important role.

From checklists to a workbook and website

However, there were many things that required a somewhat legal touch and, because this was before the day of Family Court Support Workers and – for most people — the internet, my clients turned to me for that support. I did the best I could, often creating makeshift checklists and tip sheets so women could keep track of the progress of their case and have critical information at their fingertips. 

Back then – more than 20 years ago – I started to think about how helpful it would be if women like my clients could have some kind of a workbook to help them survive family court. This idea has rattled around in my head ever since and, three years ago, Luke’s Place Support and Resource Centre (where I am the Legal Director), applied for and received a grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario to create “Family Court and Beyond: A Survival Workbook for Women.”

Empowering women

The overarching goal of the workbook and its companion website is to empower women by providing them with critical legal information as well as tools to support them take charge of their stories as they move towards building lives that are free from violence for themselves and their children.

The book and website have been designed so women can dip into information as they need it. Legal information is provided in plain language. The website contains the full workbook in downloadable format, but each section of the book can also be accessed individually as a woman needs it.

The workbook can be used by a woman on her own, but our hope is that most women will use it as they work with a legal advocate, who can provide emotional support as well as further legal information.  To assist with this, we have developed four workshops that follow the themes of the workbook for workers to present to groups of women.

Just what do women need to know?

For us, the process of this book’s development is as important as the final product. Rather than assuming we knew what women would want to know, we assembled a focus group of women who had been through the family court process. We worked with those women, who were paid for their time and expertise, from the beginning to the end of the project.

What we learned from the women informed every section of the book. In particular, their input led to the development of two sections that we had not considered:  a checklist to assist women when they are preparing to leave their abuser and information and tools to support women manage life, children and their ex-partner after the court process is over.

More than family law

While the workbook is focused on family law and family court, with detailed information about the steps in a family law case, how to collect and present evidence effectively, how to find and work with a family law lawyer and services available at family court, it also touches on legal issues that intersect with family law for many women: criminal, immigration and child protection law.

There is information for women who live in rural and remote communities as well as for Indigenous women.

In one of the early focus group meetings, a woman said: “It took me a long time after leaving my abuser to realize that it was not selfish for me to take care of myself.  It was really, really hard for me to understand that I was worth taking care of.” Okay, we thought, let’s put the self-care section of the workbook up front.

Not surprisingly, safety was front and foremost as we developed both the book and website. We discuss what safety planning is and provide tools to help women create a plan for their emotional as well as physical safety. There is a safety plan specifically for going to court. Women can learn about how to identify technological abuse, to manage electronic communication with their ex safely and to use technology as safely as possible. There is information and a tip sheet for safety planning with children.

Where now?

This workbook will not right all the wrongs women face in family court. Laws still need to change; lawyers, mediators, judges and others need to learn more about violence within the family; proper resourcing needs to be provided to ensure that all women who need it have legal representation.

In the meantime, this workbook puts information and tools in the hands of the women who need it, which we hope will improve both their journey through family court and the outcomes with which they emerge.

Please spread the word!

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