Silenced by the pandemic: The impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence

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Self-isolation is a necessary measure to stop the spread of COVID-19, but it keeps many people in difficult family situations.

Indeed, domestic violence is reportedly on the rise and many women are victims of it. The social distancing measures, which was intended to help the population, creates new problems.

Access to justice is a fundamental value of the Canadian justice system. To achieve this, transparency and accountability should be at the forefront in pursuing this goal. During unprecedented times have we adapted to our situation? Are we ensuring that victims of domestic violence have the access that they need and deserve?

To gain a better understanding of the situation we’ve decided to reach out to a Montreal-based family lawyer to discuss the challenges faced during COVID-19.

When COVID-19 started and we were affected here in Montreal there was a lot of uncertainty. We had proceedings that we had commenced for clients that were pending that were just about to be served that we put a direct halt on because we now were learning that this spouse was going to be really stuck in the house with the other partner. Especially if it was a case or there was domestic violence or any sort of abuse at all in the home. We had decided to hold off on issuing or filing the proceedings in those cases and then it was really difficult because then people had to start coexisting.

At one point our courts were really closed in the sense that they were only available for emergencies. So to issue a divorce or to issue a proceeding whether it be about other things it really had to be very urgent. We had some cases for child support or spousal support that were urgent. Custody stuff was urgent, but it was very hard, there was a very big triage of scrutiny to be able to get into court. And when you’re already dealing with a tenuous house a house where there’s always already a lot of stress it was already not good there was already psychological ill treatment involved and then it’s heightened, everything’s heightened. You just have more hours in the day for that to happen.

I would say it’s from March until, like, I want to almost say July, it was very hard. People were calling trying to find out their rights, there was clients out there calling me, they were trying to see at the time if they could even rent an apartment because when we were really on that lockdown, like, my clients couldn’t even go and find an apartment. We were trying to get one party to move out of the house because it’s intolerable, but where are they going? So, I’m like, go stay at a hotel. Well, I don’t think domestic violence has ever been dealt with properly. I mean, it’s an epidemic in and of itself, you know? It’s been going on for years, not being talked about, and then you still have people who talk about it in almost like a joking way. This is real, it’s one in four women. I think it might have been, at one point, I heard a stat of one in three, uh, that’s mind-boggling. And the resources, we don’t have enough resources. There needs to be services that are more readily available. To get a social worker in Quebec the wait list is incredibly long, if you want to go through the public system. So basically, if you can’t afford to go through private, to get treatment is very, very hard, and there’s a long wait list. And sometimes people don’t have that kind of time.

With court restrictions high and resources being stretched thin we wanted to learn more. How have domestic violence services in Quebec managed the difficulties that arose due to COVID-19? Furthermore, how are social services participating in our judicial system? Madame Louise Lafortune is responsible for files related to the issue of domestic violence and intervention at L’institution de regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale. She provided us with valuable insight into both of these questions.

We were very concerned about the impacts of the pandemic, and particularly the confinement on women victims of conjugal violence and children. Because when the spouse is there all the time, it is all the more dangerous for the women. There are more acts of violence that are committed. What we also saw in the occupation of the houses, you know we were against the current of the wave, that is to say that when the wave was high, when the confinement was at its height, there was less occupation in the houses because the women were trapped and could not escape the violence. Because it is often when the spouse is not there that they will call for help. When the spouse is present they are trapped. When there was the deconfinement, so in June and then during the summer, there was a big boom of calls for help in the houses.

There are important training issues for the various stakeholders — that is police officers, prosecutors, judges — with regard to the problem of the conjugal violence and they must understand well what it means for a victim to be in a process of conjugal violence and then the strategies also of the spouse related to that. We are also thinking about the possibility of having specialized courts, so that the accompaniment of the victim is taken into account and it does not become a place of revictimization. Because this is also the issue, it is what women find difficult. When they feel that they are not believed, that the dangerousness of the spouse is not taken into account. In a system which is still based largely on the acts of aggression, that does not take into account the whole of the problem, and then, in particular, all the psychological violence of which the women are victims. So I think that there is also progress to be made in this respect if we want to help all women victims of conjugal violence and not only the cases that are criminalized because our law is made in such a way that we only take into account the acts.

Domestic violence is still very present in our society today, with the pandemic shining a spotlight on a pre-existing issue. Despite the perseverance of social workers and associated individuals involved in solving this problem we still have a long way to go. We must ensure the protection of victims by fighting to break down taboos, encourage denunciation, and facilitate access to justice and support services. In order to do so we all have a contribution to make and it’s our duty to be on the lookout, to raise awareness and to build the resources available to create a better future in our society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our daily lives and has had a significant impact on the justice system and its institutions. Unprecedented measures have confined us to our homes in order to fight an invisible threat. However, this new reality has exacerbated many issues, including domestic violence.

In this video, law students expose the impact of COVID-19 on women victims of domestic violence from the perspective of access to justice. They meet with Me Sheri Spunt, a family law lawyer in Montreal, who explains the consequences of the pandemic on her practice, family disputes and the situation of clients who are confined to their homes in situations of domestic violence. The students then present issues of access to support resources during the pandemic with Ms. Louise Lafortune of the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale.

This visual advocacy video was produced by law students Malick Ouattara, Matthew Steinlauf and Samy Sichaib as a term project for the Visual Advocacy / Law and Film course at the Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section, University of Ottawa.

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