Victory for survivors of family violence

In an important victory for survivors of family violence, the Supreme Court of Canada released a decision in Barendregt v Grebliunas that will have far-reaching impacts on how the courts identify family violence, protect survivors, and ensure the best interests of children.

We’re thrilled that the Court adopted many of our arguments that we set out alongside our friends at Rise Women’s Legal Centre. The Supreme Court overturned a decision by the BC Court of Appeal (BCCA) and allowed a mother and her children to rebuild their lives in their home community, with greater safety from a pattern of abusive behaviours by the children’s father.

Family violence is an endemic problem in Canada. It systemically undermines the dignity, safety, and equality of women, and children. Yet, it’s notoriously difficult to address in the legal system. It usually takes place behind closed doors, and evidence of it is often minimized or dismissed.

This case raised concerns on whether courts are meaningfully responding to family violence when deciding family law cases. It also examined when and how an appeal court can consider additional evidence that was not before the trial judge.

The trial judge had allowed the mother to move the children to her home community because of concerns about the father’s abusive behaviours toward the mother and about the father’s financial situation. The father had a history of physical, emotional, and litigation abuse, and the trial judge believed that the mother would be safer and more supported in her home community. The BCCA overturned the relocation order, basing its decision on new information about the father’s financial situation that was not before the trial judge.

By doing that, the BCCA minimized the findings of family violence and the risk of continuing harm to the mother and children. The father’s financial situation may have changed, but the findings of family violence had not.

We intervened jointly with Rise Women’s Legal Centre to highlight the social and legal context of family violence and its relevance to the issues before the court. This context includes the widespread influence of myths and stereotypes about family violence within and outside the legal system. This includes ideas that abuse experienced by a parent doesn’t affect the children or the abuser’s parenting ability, that abuse ends when the relationship ends, or that reconciliation or cooperation between parents are signs that abuse was not serious.

The Supreme Court tackled these very myths and stereotypes in its decision. It confirmed that family violence is a central consideration when determining the best interests of children and that courts should take evidence of even one incident of family violence seriously.

This case illustrates once again the importance of legal support for people fleeing family violence, which is at the core of our constitutional challenge Single Mothers Alliance v BC. No one should have to face their abusive ex in court, alone.

We’re grateful to our pro bono counsel Claire E. Hunter, Q.C. and Diana C. Sepúlveda, who joined Kimberly Hawkins from Rise and Kate Feeney from West Coast LEAF.

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