Taking a harder line against domestic violence

“During these incidents the offender punched the victim in the knees, hit her on the head and on her ears, pushed her, dragged her on the ground, slapped her, bit her, spat in her face, head-butted her, shook her, pulled her hair and grabbed her by the shoulders while threatening to throw her off a balcony. During one incident, he threw various objects at her. During another, he took a knife and threatened to remove the baby she was carrying in her womb.”

So described Court of Quebec Judge Alexandre Dalmau the horrors that former sports journalist Jonah Keri inflicted on his wife. Repeatedly. He was sentenced to 21 months of imprisonment.

The courts are beginning to take a harder line against domestic abuse. Over the past year Quebec Superior Court has awarded damages to victims of spousal abuse. Ontario Superior Court followed suit in late February 2022 after it recognized a new tort in family violence.

So too is the justice system and Quebec government, a movement that gained much traction over the past year, particularly since the beginning of the year.

Quebec announced this March that it will be launching the first of five specialized sexual and domestic violence court pilot projects at the Salaberry-de-Valleyfield courthouse, which annually handles an average of 1,000 cases of domestic and sexual violence. It will be followed by courthouses in Drummondville, Granby, La Tuque, and Quebec City.

The Quebec government also enacted Bill 24 in mid-March, legislation that will compel some intimate partner violent offenders to wear electronic tracking devices. The $41-million project will begin in Quebec City before being rolled out across the province over the course of two years. Only six countries, including Australia, England, France, Portugal, Spain, and the U.S., have implemented a GPS tracking device system to thwart domestic violence.

The need to tackle domestic violence has been highlighted by a number of studies published this year.

More than one in four women (or 27 per cent) experience intimate partner violence before the age of 50, according to a worldwide analysis led by researchers from McGill University and the World Health Organization, published in The Lancet. The analysis, the largest of its kind, covers 366 studies involving more than 2 million women in 161 countries. The scourge is likely to have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the researchers.

“Overall, our research shows that governments are not on track to meet global targets to eliminate violence against women and girls. An important takeaway is that even in some high-income countries the prevalence of intimate partner violence is relatively high, which calls for investment in prevention at local and global levels,” said Mathieu Maheu-Giroux, a Canada Research Chair in Population Health Modeling.

“In Québec alone, we witnessed a wave of 17 intimate partner feminicides in 2021 – the most extreme consequence of intimate partner violence and the highest number in more than a decade,” he added.

The Quebec Coroner too released a report recently. It points out that domestic violence “compromises” the safety and development of many children and even leads to the death of some of them. Filicide (homicide of a child by the father or mother) is the second most common form of intrafamily homicide in Quebec and Canada, after spousal homicide, underlines the report.

In another recently published report, law professors Deanne Sowter and Jennifer Koshan point out that the courts have made “less progress in recognizing problematic assumptions” about family violence compared to the progress made in sexual assault law. The newly revised Ethical Principles for Judges (EPJ), published by the the Canadian Judicial Council, does not explicitly reference family violence, which is disquieting, according to the law professors. “But there are also opportunities to interpret the EPJ to ensure that family violence considerations are front of mind for judges hearing cases or conducting judicial mediation.”

There is a glimmer of hope. Legal frameworks are beginning to change in ways that require judges to better appreciate the harms of family violence and “how those harms should influence the suitability of family dispute resolution processes and outcomes,” note Sowter and Koshan.

The same could be said of the Quebec justice system overall. Spurred by the spate of feminicides and the publication of a landmark report, the Quebec government has launched a series of initiatives that at the very least sends the message that intimate partner violence is no longer to be tolerated.

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