Legal Aid Ontario is looking at boosting its services for domestic violence victims — and wants your opinion on what should be included in its expanded offering.
LAO will be meeting with survivors of domestic violence, representatives from women’s shelters, and other legal and community service providers this summer and fall to develop a domestic violence strategy, the agency announced late last month. Members of the public are invited to attend in person or submit their suggestions to LAO in writing.
“Because domestic violence is so prevalent in our culture, we determined it’s essential that we need to develop a strategy at this point to address the legal issues and needs of those who have experienced domestic violence,” says Michelle Squires, LAO’s policy counsel charged with developing the strategy.
Asked what the new strategy might mean in concrete terms, Squires says, “It’s a really broad starting point at this point. . . . We’re open to anything and that, I think, is the point of the discussion paper.”
LAO has already brought in a number of domestic-violence-related initiatives over the last few months, she says, including increasing victims’ financial eligibility and adding new services so first-time accused in domestic violence situations are able to qualify for criminal certificates.
The size of the project’s funding is yet to be decided.
“Funding has come from a number of different areas for domestic violence initiatives so far, so I think the floor’s kind of open right now,” says Squires. “This paper is going to start that discussion and then we’ll be able to see what sort of changes might need to be made or what we can do to improve our services or what we might be missing.”
Archana Medhekar, a family lawyer who works almost entirely with victims of domestic violence, says she’s planning to make a submission.
There have been disadvantages as well as advantages with LAO’s efforts over the last few years to streamline its processes using call centres and closing some regional offices, says Medhekar.
One problem with call centres, she says, is the fact that the caller is actually a victim of domestic violence is not always communicated because of the relatively impersonal nature of a phone call.
“It may not occur to them to say to legal aid consciously — to someone who takes their call — that I’m a victim,” Medhekar says.
“It takes a lot of time for clients to open up even with their lawyer, to give lots of details of what they faced as abuse,” she says. “Many times people who came to me would not identify themselves as a victim of domestic violence.”
A possible solution, she says, would be to boost LAO’s community partnerships — ensuring, for example, that staff at women’s shelters include trained counsellors for domestic violence victims to speak with in person, to help them find a lawyer, and “connect them with some starting point in the system.”
“It means a lot to have the right help at the right time,” she says.
Recognizing domestic violence victims often have intersecting legal needs is key, so it would be useful to have a variety of lawyers — not just family lawyers but also potentially immigration and criminal lawyers — working co-operatively on their legal aid certificates, she says.
“The approach that if I’m a family lawyer then I just assist the clients with respect to their family court issues doesn’t work,” she says.
LAO should consider providing more two-hour certificates, so domestic violence victims can get an initial consultation quickly, she says.
It also needs to re-evaluate how much it pays interpreters, since current levels of pay often aren’t high enough to attract them. For domestic violence victims who speak languages other than English, interpreters play “an amazing, immense role in getting the real concerns of the victims out,” she says.
“If they can speak their mother tongue, they open up quickly,” she says.
Ivana Vaccaro, managing partner at Raviele Vaccaro LLP and with extensive experience in cases of spousal abuse, will be suggesting a program involving legal aid lawyers regularly visiting women’s shelters to inform them about the law.
Vaccaro says she used to give information workshops on her own time at shelters and found they filled an important need.
“I always found the women really benefited from that and thought, ‘Why doesn’t legal aid do something like that?” she says. “In terms of these women getting the information they should, it’s not happening as fast as it should.”
Being able to conveniently access legal information can be very important to women in shelters, she says, because getting to legal aid clinics, especially with children and without a vehicle, can be difficult for them — and when they arrive there’s often a wait.
Sessions might involve topics such as what to expect when one goes to see a lawyer and issues around custody, child support, and restraining orders. From her experience, she says, many aren’t even aware they can get a restraining order in family court.
Others could include eligibility for legal aid. Some domestic violence survivors Vaccaro has encountered are afraid if they have no income but own a house, they’ll be forced to sell the house to pay for their legal aid certificate.
When she gave her talks, Vaccaro says, she saw many victims of domestic violence who had recently immigrated in desperate need of information about their rights. They were often reluctant to report domestic violence because they were worried it might affect their status, especially if their husbands had sponsored them.
“The prevailing fear was he’s going to kick me out of the country now. He sponsored me, I got my status because of him, and now he’s going to send me back.”
LAO will be posting dates and locations of meetings later this summer, and people interested in attending will be able to self register, says Squires. The consultation sessions will end in November, and a summary of the results is expected to be released by LAO by next summer.