Skip to content

Family law can be a dangerous job

Lawyers reflect on own experiences following violence in Manitoba
|Written By Tali Folkins

When Christine Marchetti first heard about the explosion that seriously injured Manitoba lawyer Maria Mitousis, one thought went through her head.

James Morton says he has had guns pulled on him three times.

“I thought for sure that’s criminal or family counsel,” says Marchetti, a lawyer at Stanchieri Family Law in Toronto. Marchetti says it wasn’t surprising that Mitousis practises family law given the violent passions cases can give rise to.

Mitousis suffered serious injuries on July 3 after opening a parcel bomb in her Winnipeg office. Guido Amsel, who’s facing charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault related to that incident as well as two others that week, is the ex-husband of a woman Mitousis represented as a divorce lawyer.

Although she says she’s fortunate to have avoided the kind of attack that befell Mitousis, Marchetti has had at least one experience that left her feeling threatened and shocked. Early in her practice, she entered an elevator after a proceeding to find herself next to the wife of the man she was representing. Looking at her, the woman drew her fingers across her own throat in a slitting motion.

Marchetti says she now avoids getting on elevators until the other party has clearly left. During proceedings that make her feel particularly uncomfortable, she chooses a seat next to the court officers.

While it’s also a contentious area, the situation in criminal law appears to be different. Leo Adler, of Adler Bytensky Prutschi Shikhman, says that in his roughly 40 years of practice in that area, he has never once felt that his personal safety was under threat. He’s sure it’s a different story for family lawyers, however.

“My experience is that certainly criminal defence counsel are very rarely the subject of any type of attack,” says Adler. “Family law generates usually much more angst, much more emotion than criminal cases. The parties have a tendency to blame the lawyers.”

It’s a field where suspicion can run high. It’s common, for example, for one member of an estranged couple to harbour suspicions that the other is in some sort of a relationship with a family lawyer, says Marchetti.

Toronto family lawyer Gary Joseph, managing partner at MacDonald & Partners LLP, notes Ontario has its own history of violence against family lawyers. In 1978, the husband of a client represented by family lawyer Frederick Gans shot and killed him at a Toronto courthouse. The court found the man not guilty by reason of insanity.

“We deal in a highly emotional field and it is surprising that there have not been more incidents,” says Joseph.

Family law firms should instruct their staff, he says, on the potential for violence by, for example, counselling lawyers on the signs to watch out for and establishing safety plans.

Sofia Mirza, president of the Manitoba Bar Association, says that in the aftermath of the attack against Mitousis, she heard from a number of members of the family law bar in the province about the “power and control struggles” that can make family law litigants so emotionally volatile.

“By retaining a lawyer, in some cases, a party now has a voice and is empowered when in the relationship they may not have been,” says Mirza. “Opposing parties sometimes view the lawyer pushing for their client’s rights as turning their world upside down.”

Kathryn Smithen, a sole practitioner based in Toronto, expresses a similar concern. “You never know what’s going to be the last straw that’s going to break the camel’s back, what’s going to push someone over the edge,” she says.

Aggressive behaviour, she says, doesn’t always come from clients on the opposite side of a family law case. She once had to call the police on a potential client who didn’t like what she was telling him and started screaming at her in her office. They charged the man with criminal harassment, she says.

Smithen notes she never sees a client unless there are administrative staff in the office with her.

Still, events this month have also shown that violence against lawyers goes beyond family law. On July 2, Benoît Côté, a lawyer specializing in corporate reorganization, transfers, and property law, and Marie-Josée Sills, a notary, died in hospital after a shooting at Côté’s office in Terrebonne, Que. The only suspect in the shooting, Michel Dubuc, was found dead with his two sons in what police believe was a murder-suicide. In a case that was still ongoing the week of the shooting, Dubuc had filed a $1.2-million lawsuit against Côté in 2013. Dubuc had also reportedly retained Côté’s law firm in an earlier lawsuit.

James Morton, a past president of the Ontario Bar Association, says he has had guns pulled on him on three separate occasions, once while driving on the highway with a client — an incident he says resulted in “a rather dramatic police takedown” — and twice in his office. Only the last incident related to a family law case, although he agrees that area is likely to involve the most threats to personal safety.

For more, see "Lawyers suffering violence alone."

  • Lawyer are Stressed?

    Mufasa Lion
    Or lawyers giving bad advice and hurting the family in the process. If a person takes a lawyer's advice and does something to really destroy the other person's life, how does that benefit anyone. It actually hurts the person with the crap lawyer!

    If a person simply must leave their spouse. Say what if they are in danger. What if the person is mentally deranged. What if the kids are unsafe there. What if they can't stand being cheated on. What if they have no access to funds. Or - worse, what if they work, make a decent living, but cannot afford a lawyer?

    Self representation is 70% of family litigants for a reason - lawyers charge too much, lawyers are incompetent, or the person simply has no choice.

    But okay, Family Lawyers are stressed?
    FIX the system!!

    I think the entire province, and country should protest this stuff. Just stand outside the courts with signs and get on the news, lobby the MP's
  • Fix the System - it's Broken

    Captain Obvious
    Then you have guys, girls whatever refusing to pay support or help their families whatsoever and plunge the other party into debt and sometimes, homelessness

    You have people who refuse to cooperate, hurt kids, hurt themselves, file all kinds of lawsuits on the other person, cause bankruptcy, people destroy homes, businesses, lives

    The worst is the money lawyers charge - it can destroy even a well-off person - $700+ an hour for some or especially ones in Toronto.
  • Ontario Family Law is Corrupt

    Family Law Corrupt
    Maybe because the Family Law system is broken, corrupt and evil?

    Hmm yeah blame others, not the court system which EVERYONE knows is totally bogus in Ontario (and Canada).

    Family law is the worst system in Canada

    Look at Domestic Violence victims- on one hand you have real victims being told they are lying because of the 2% of false claims. Then you have abusers who have actually raped and beat someone being able to be around kids? What kind of crazy is that.

    Then you have people that cheat and uproot their entire families, destroy their kids lives - no punishment because of 'no fault'

    Then you have totally great parents, who could have joint custody, where nobody has beat up the other one or caused hospitalization, there are no criminal records or driving while intoxicated. Yet no joint custody

    A sex offender gets to see his children - what??? And be alone with them. Neato !
  • Robert N
    I would like to address William Smith's question "what would drive someone to act in this way?" I actually find it shocking that he doesn't know the answer. Virtually all Family Court Lawyers and Judges are incompetent and the majority engage in criminal activity. Case in point. Lawyers and Judges allowed my ex-wife to steal 25,000 in property, 6,500 in spousal support and now over 4,000 in child support. They attempted to steal another 54,000 in spousal support before I stopped it. When lawyers tryto destroy men's lives, men will fight back in any way they can. I figure they will go for the grand slam next time and either steal my car or my pension plan - the only two assets I have left. Does that answer your question William Smith?
  • William Smith
    This article misses the point in a lot of ways. Not to excuse the behavior of those crazy enough to use violence - but what would drive someone to act in this way? Perhaps that's where the discussion should focus. It's somewhat ironic that one person describes the aggressive behavior of her client or those on the opposite side. But what about the lawyers themselves? Should they not be held accountable for their aggressive and malicious behavior, too? When my opposing lawyer made up all sorts of false allegations against me in support of her client, what could I do? I received letter after letter from opposing counsel berating me in every possible way. And of course, the mediator-arbitrator was only too willing to enable this behavior.

    Violence is never the answer. But there are a lot of bad apples in the family law industry who help destroy lives. As Phil Epstein would say, "the system is broke." But I would say it's some of the people in it that allow it to fail.
  • sheldon tenenbaum
    The Winnipeg letter bomb is a stark reminder that family lawyers need to be proactive in matters of personal security. I have since insructed my staff to open my mail.
  • William Smith
    Mr. Tenenbaum - not trying to be disrespectful here, but if you are concerned about the safety of your mail, why would you put your staff at risk of opening it?
  • William Smith
    The violence that exists against family law professionals - or any professionals - shows those who act in such a manner are cowards and belligerent. There is no excuse. However, I understand where the desperation may be coming from. As I have experienced, there are many in the family law business who don't care about the parents nor their kids who are embroiled in divorce cases. In many cases, including my own, the lawyers and mediator-arbitrator fanned the flames and made things intolerable for my kids. And few are doing anything about it. I don't believe in violence, obviously, but I do believe in speaking out. And until the family law system is willing to change, there are going to be families hurting - and family law practitioners more than willing to take advantage of them through unethical and immoral behavior. I experienced that first hand. And unfortunately, in the mediation-arbitration process, neither OAFM nor ADR provide proper oversight of such individuals.
cover image


Subscribers get early and easy access to Law Times.

Law Times Poll

Ontario’s recent provincial budget calls for changes in benefits for catastrophically injured patients, including a ‘return to the default benefit limit of $2 million for those who are catastrophically injured in an accident, after it was previously reduced to $1 million in 2016.’ Do you agree with this shift?