Proposing the introduction of curriculum focused on one particular social context topic may face some challenges, although these may differ from law school to law school and from one faculty member to another. Issues of academic freedom, objectivity and the importance of black letter law, among others, may be raised as objections to movement in this direction. Integrating non-traditional material into a curriculum that is steeped in history has never been easy, although there have been increasingly successful efforts to address social contexts in law schools over the past 25 years in particular. Thus in some schools, or for some faculty members, curriculum about violence against women may be viewed as adding an important nuance to a curriculum that places law in social context. In other cases, however, it may be thought that adding yet another “social context” issue will detract from the “proper” curriculum.
Many faculty members will appreciate that training future lawyers to understand the dynamics of violence against women and the appropriate way to respond to clients who have experienced (or are experiencing) violence or clients who have been accused of committing violence or have been found responsible for doing so is a matter of competently representing clients and fulfilling ethical responsibilities. Competent representation in this context requires being able to explain certain conduct by the client that would otherwise be difficult to explain or which might affect the lawyer’s response; knowing how the experience of violence might affect the presentation of the case; and having the awareness to direct a client to non-legal resources, among other examples. A lawyer who is unfamiliar with signs of domestic or intimate partner violence may give advice that is inappropriate in the circumstances and, indeed, a lawyer needs to have enough knowledge to know that he or she does not have sufficient competence to deal with the matter (see the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 2.01). The presence of domestic violence might affect whether a lawyer considers alternate dispute resolution an appropriate approach pursuant to Rule 2.02(3).
As with all courses, to a certain extent professors would have discretion in how they teach this topic, keeping in mind the usual expectations the law school has developed about teaching responsibilities and ensuring that major issues are taught. Law schools vary in the extent to which they expect faculty members to teach to a specified course outline, for example. This initiative does not contemplate a departure from law schools’ own expectations. Again, as with all courses, teaching approaches would reflect the current body of academic, statistical, statutory and case law knowledge and would support full, open and respectful discussion among the students.
Yet intimate partner violence is not an easy subject to address, even for those who are more familiar with the issues and the material. Individual professors may be reluctant to raise these issues in the classroom or may feel ill-equipped to manage the often challenging discussions that teaching about violence against women often engenders. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of violence against women makes it inevitable that some students (and teachers) will have experienced such violence themselves or in their families or circle of friends. This reality requires particular skill on the part of the professor to manage – whether the experience is one from the perspective of victim or perpetrator. There can be an emotional toll for those who teach the subject just as there is for students who engage in clinical activities related to violence against women.
Professors need to be supported in teaching this new material through the provision of resources, teaching tools and discussion guides. Connecting professors for whom this is unfamiliar terrain with those already teaching about violence against women could prove enormously helpful. Faculties of law offering internal teaching clinics or workshops (as does Osgoode Hall Law School, for example), could dedicate one to the topic of teaching violence against women issues.
“Specialized” violence against women courses and seminars, those addressing a particular aspect of the broader topic, are likely to attract students who are already well versed in the subject matter or at least interested in learning about it. It is therefore important that to some degree relevant issues are addressed in introductory courses that are mandatory for students.
Issues related to violence against women can be taught within the law school’s current “fiscal envelope”. Indeed, the Faculty may attract new funding in the form of research grants, fellowships for professors, additional attention in the form of applications from potential students and even private donors who have a particular interest in supporting such an initiative.
Appreciating the need to teach issues related to violence against women requires an understanding of the prevalence of this social issue and of the need for students to leave law school equipped to address social context, including violence against women, in their work if they are to meet minimum ethical and professional standards. As with many topics, these modules teach not only content but also skills, such as interviewing, learning how to see beyond the surface, raising concerns with opposing counsel and understanding when a lawyer’s obligations may go beyond the obvious legal case. These are skills that are transferable to other areas of practice.
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