New court program focuses on family violence
Domestic violence court files are being handled a little differently in Nanaimo.
These cases are now separated from the rest of the criminal files and dealt with through the domestic violence court, which had its first session at the beginning of the month. It is the second of its kind in B.C. – Duncan has had a similar program for several years.
“It’s a new specialized court that’s strictly for dealing with family violence,” said Jackie Gaudet, the Crown counsel assigned to the domestic violence court. “We’re learning that we need to treat these files in a different way.”
Domestic violence files are different from other criminal matters because the victim is intimately connected to the accused – the individuals are often married, have children and homes together, and results can destroy families, she explained.
The court is in session once every two weeks and services such as Haven Society’s community victim services program, the Justice Access Centre and an aboriginal court worker are on hand to provide support for victims and accused.
The initiative is the result of the advocacy of a group formed in Nanaimo several years ago to talk about high-risk cases and how to deal with these situations more efficiently and safely.
The Community Coordination for Domestic Safety includes representation from a range of service providers and government organizations that deal with domestic violence incidents. Nanaimo Crown counsel deals with about 500 domestic violence cases each year and both men and women can be the perpetrators, said Gaudet.
Gaudet said separating the domestic violence files from the other criminal files and having one Crown counsel deal with all of these cases – up to now, people didn’t always get the same prosecutor throughout the process – means more consistency and an improved ability to track cases.
“By having it in the same courtroom, I’m there,” she said. “They don’t have to phone me and leave a message. I’m able to point them to the people who can help them – they’re right there.”
The new setup makes it easier for service providers and court officials to conduct risk assessments and do safety planning work with families that wish to remain intact, said Gaudet.
“The majority of the time, people want to stay together,” she said. “If they’re going to be together, we’ve got to work out a way that they’re safer and healthier. We know some people will re-offend, that’s just the way life is, but we’ve got to make some effort to lessen that.”
The hope is having service providers in the courtroom will help people access the help they need because it is right there for them, said Gaudet.
“A lot of times, people just don’t know where to turn,” she said.
For the less serious files involving such things as pushing and threats and where the offender does not have a criminal record, Gaudet said having all cases together will mean more time to talk about steps that can be taken to receive a lesser sentence or even a stay of proceedings – if the offender is getting the help he or she needs and maintaining healthy relationships, there may be no reason to continue prosecution.
She believes the new format will keep victims more engaged in the process.
“Already we found there were a lot of people who wanted to speak to me and other service providers,” said Gaudet.
Jennifer Kusz, Haven Society’s community victim services program coordinator, said agency workers used to go to the courthouse and mingle with the dozens of people waiting for their case to be called, but it was difficult to connect with victims of domestic violence because workers didn’t know who they were.
Now that all of these files will be in one courtroom, the agency will be able to make that initial contact with all female victims – another agency deals with male victims – to present options and talk about safety.
“It makes that connection that much easier,” said Kusz. “Often we’ll only see women who want to engage with us.”
From a safety perspective, she said the courtroom presence could mean reaching women earlier in the process – statistics show women are most in danger right after separation.
Kusz anticipates increased participation in Haven Society’s other programs, including counselling and the transition house, due to the initiative.
Theo Boere, Nanaimo Men’s Resource Centre executive director, said he hopes to provide a counsellor at the domestic violence court as often as possible, but the centre’s resources are limited, so the support wouldn’t be available every two weeks.
The centre’s clients are both victims and perpetrators and services include counselling, legal support and anger management programs.
Boere said domestic cases are often complicated matters that deal with built-up anger on all sides and the hope is this specialized court will be able to deal with these matters in a non-gender-biased way.