A. The Issue of Violence Against Women

Violence against women[2] is a serious and entrenched social problem in every community in Ontario, Canada and around the world. As Amnesty International put it in its Stop Violence Against Women campaign:

It’s the world’s most pervasive human rights violation. It’s the violation most often ignored. Every minute of every day, women and girls around the world are assaulted, threatened, raped, mutilated, killed.[3]

The reality of this violence is often overlooked or ignored, despite the fact that, at a time when Canadian crime rates generally are on the decline, the rate of violence against women remains constant or even is on the increase.[4]

The relationship between violence against women and the law is clear. Particularly, but not exclusively, in the areas of criminal and family law, issues related to violence against women arise on a daily basis. Yet it is crucial to appreciate that these issues can arise in many areas of law in ways not necessarily appreciated by practitioners who do not practise in the “usual” areas of law that are assumed to raise these issues.

B. Violence Against Women Issues Need to be Included in the Law School Curriculum

In 1992, three legal academics developed detailed materials for a seminar on “wife abuse” for the OWD. In the twenty years since, there have been a number of recommendations to address the topic of domestic violence in faculties of law in Ontario. Importantly, there has also been an increased understanding more broadly about the prevalence of domestic violence. Yet there has not been a systematic effort to develop contemporary materials, even though whether or not legal professionals realize it, domestic violence issues can arise in the practice of law in almost every field. Corporate lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers, tort lawyers, real property lawyers, criminal defense lawyers and family lawyers, regularly represent victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. Criminal and civil judges preside over a range of cases involving domestic violence as an underlying or hotly contested issue. The need to understand domestic violence legal issues is relevant to the competency of individual lawyers and judges, as well as the legal profession as a whole.[5]

As the 1997 Report of the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence (“the ABA Commission”) states,

The legal profession has a unique role to play in developing and implementing coordinated community responses to domestic violence. To realize this goal, however, law school programs must ensure that law students – who may become prosecutors, defense attorneys, family law attorneys, general practitioners, business leaders, legislators, lobbyists, policy analysts, or judges – attain an adequate understanding of domestic violence issues.[6]

Finding a way to ensure that all students are exposed to education about violence against women is critical because any law student, regardless of her or his career path, will almost inevitably be faced with a client or a case where violence against women is an element. As the ABA concluded,

Teaching law students about domestic violence issues should be an inherent part of legal education, rather than a specialized track taught only by professors who are experts in domestic violence law. Raising domestic violence issues provides students with an opportunity to engage in profound debate about the law’s role in shaping social policy. The diversity of approaches to the criminal, civil, and federal aspects of domestic violence law allows students to consider a range of perspectives across the political spectrum.[7]

In other words, teaching about violence against women needs to be a pervasive component of law schools, not something students can bypass because they think they do not need to know about it. Rather, students need to understand that violence against women issues can arise in almost any area of law, and women who have experienced violence and men who have perpetrated it may be their clients regardless of why lawyers are representing them.

In Ontario in recent years, largely as the result of recommendations made by inquest juries and the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (DVDRC),[8] some steps have been taken to address the topic of domestic violence in continuing legal education programs for practising lawyers, but to date there has been little attention paid to raising this issue in a formal way in law school curriculum.

Since as early as 1999, recommendations have been made to address the topic of domestic violence in faculties of law in Ontario. The Joint Committee on Domestic Violence wrote as follows:

The Canadian Association of Law Deans and the Canadian Association of Law Teachers should work towards ensuring the adequacy of education for law students on domestic violence. We recommend that such education become part of the core curriculum.[9]

Recommendations have come from a number of other sources in the years since. The various reports of the DVDRC include recommendations generally about the importance of education about the dynamics of domestic violence and the need to take appropriate action for professionals, including lawyers and judges, who come into contact with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence (2007, 2009, 2010) and more specifically to use some of the DVDRC case files as teaching aids in law schools (2010).[10]

In its 2008 research report, Luke’s Place Support and Resource Centre for Women and Children recommends that the government work with faculties of law to develop either consistent components within family law courses or a stand-alone course on violence against women.[11]

The final report of the Domestic Violence Advisory Council[12] contained a number of recommendations for reforms to the legal response to violence against women, including the following directed at the education of lawyers:

Build on the work being done through the Government of Ontario and professional schools to ensure that all law students study the issue of violence against women either in stand-alone courses or as part of other courses such as family, criminal and evidence law.[13]

While there has not been a coordinated approach to integrating violence against women into the law school curriculum, there have been both faculties and individual professors who have exposed students to the topic. This happens in particular in criminal and family law courses, but violence against women has also surfaced in contracts, torts and other courses, as well as in more specialized upper year courses.

Students also have the opportunity to learn about violence against women in student legal clinics, externships in specialized community clinics such as Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic and through independent study programs.


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