Courtwatch 2013’s FIRST EVER BLOG POST!

Adam Helfand-Green

I walked into the courtroom just as I had on many other mornings this summer, expecting to hear a charge read and then, probably, a long and complicated explanation for why this particular case would NOT be heard today.  Deliberations put off for another month so the prosecution could get their case better together, or perhaps the wrong person had got stuck in traffic on their way, or simply that a necessary letter had gotten lost on its way to the defense.

Before I keep going, an introduction is probably in order.  My name is Adam, and I and a group of like-minded individuals have been trying to implement a project we call Courtwatch.  This project, was originally implemented in Toronto by the Women Abuse Council of Toronto and involved taking a critical look at how Domestic Violence trials are prosecuted in Ontario criminal courts.  After the creation of case-specific, Domestic Violence Courts, Courtwatch monitored DV trials to see if the Courts were running as planned and actually upholding their major three intended purposes;

  1. Charges of domestic violence are prosecuted swiftly, effectively and consistently
  2. Safety and needs of victims are a priority from the initial contact with police to the conclusion of the case.
  3. Specially trained personnel (Crown Attorneys, Victim/Witness Protection Staff, probation services, Partner Assault Response staff, and community services) work together to deliver coordinated services, tailored to the needs of victims.

“Implementing the Domestic Violence Court Program” Ministry of Attorney General (May 2000), Pg. 3

http://www.domesticpeace.ca/documents/OntarioDVCImplementationManual2003.pdf

Our Courtwatch, however, little resembles those of the past.  Without funding, we are a small group (comprised mostly of friends I was able to get excited about the program), with less organized and coordinated activities.  Our group of intrepid volunteers received some training on the complexities of domestic violence as an issue, the DV court process, and what Courtwatch is looking for and how it works, through WomenatthecentrE, and then we began our pilot project; to observe and note how the court system is working.

I recently graduated from the University of Guelph with a political science degree, and like many in similar circumstances , I have little clue what I want to do next, and do not look to the future with…complete optimism shall we say?  I grew up in a household where Domestic Violence was often a topic of conversation because of my mom’s important role in working with domestic violence in the city of Toronto.  Returning from school with no real job and no concrete plans of what to do next I threw myself headfirst into trying to help organize and participate in WomenatthecentrE’s Courtwatch.  I will admit that my involvement at the start was primarily due to having too much time on my hands, and a hope that a finished Courtwatch project would help my chances of getting into graduate school.  However, my ongoing involvement and research for this project have made me a steadfast supporter of the initiative.  I read the published Courtwatch Reports beginning in 1995, the latest of which was published in 2006, read government press releases, and some research papers on the DV courts of Ontario.  Finally, I participated in a webinar on DV court research in the US which was a fascinating experience.  While many (I included…) think of Canada as a much more progressive society than our southern neighbours, the level of advocacy and research in the US on this subject makes Canadian efforts look rather pathetic and this experience really affirmed my belief in the necessity of a Courtwatch program.

Sorry about that bit of background, I’ll return to my story…

…To my astonishment today would be very different from most of my prior experiences at court.  I had made it to court late, and had walked in during the prosecution’s questioning of the victim.  Everything we had been looking to observe in the trial process was finally happening and right before my eyes!  Photo evidence of injuries, the accused and victim together in the same room, cross-examinations – so often I had come here, to see trials delayed and held over for some far off, later date.

As more details from the case were revealed through the remainder of the prosecution’s questioning, and the brutal cross-examination by the defense, I quickly forgot about the details I was looking for as part of Courtwatch, and found myself thoroughly engrossed in the story unraveling before me and in fact, imagining myself in the same situation as this young couple, it was hard not to put myself in this situation…

The events in brief were as follows, this young couple did not live together officially, however like my girlfriend and I or many friends in relationships I know of, did spend almost every night together sleeping at each others’ respective homes.  The particular Saturday evening in question, the victim, let’s call her “Laura”, had left her car at the accused (“Tom’s”) house and gone out with some friends.  Tom worked early the next morning and opened a Dojo (Karate school) where he taught.  Laura came back drunk, and while Tom was using the washroom, checked his phone and saw something she thought was inappropriate.  She demanded that they talk about it- but – he  responded that he had to work in the morning and needed to go to sleep, and ultimately demanded she leave.  After a short time (there was argument between prosecution and defense about just how much time…), the verbal argument  turned physical, with him forcing her to leave as she continued to refuse, wishing to talk about the texts.  This really resounded with me, the issue of a significant other looking at my phone is something that I have dealt with directly before and the results were…disastrous.  In telling this story to friends, I know I am not alone in my empathy for this situation.  I completely sympathize with the feelings of frustration and helplessness in this situation.  I can imagine any number of my friends, male or female, becoming involved in this situation and not knowing the right way to act.  That being said, despite the frustration and intense anger that I or my friends felt in the heat of the moment, we could never imagine a verbal argument like this getting to the point of physical violence…just what happened in this case…

Somehow this altercation ended with Laura being pinned on her back, Tom holding her arms and legs down – the fight leaving visible bruises on Laura’s body, and a mark on her face.  Finally, it took Laura some days and some convincing by friends for her to turn to the Police about what happened, the time during she and Tom had exchanged a few text messages, and Laura saying she was expecting an apology.

The ease with which I was able to relate to this case really struck me and the story has really stuck with me.  I can imagine the frustration of a drunk girlfriend demanding to have a completely unwanted conversation, late at night knowing that I have work early the next morning.  Situations similar to this have happened to me, but never did I act in a physically violent way.

Witnessing the cross-examination of the victim, it became abundantly clear why anyone would be terrified from the onset to go to the police, and through the criminal court system.  I couldn’t help but cringe during the accusatory and harsh words used by the Defense lawyer.  While an accused person has a lawyer to protect them in court, the victim of a domestic violence case (or indeed any criminal case) has no legal representation – the prosecutor is there to uphold the laws of our society, not protect the interests of the victim.  It would be difficult to not feel helpless on the stand.  Furthermore, victims in DV trials are often the only witness and while dealing with all the fears, and complexities of a relationship with someone that has abused them, they must be the proof behind any conviction.

I know this is quite a long post so I will get on to the conclusion of the case…

The Judge’s conclusions in this case were perhaps the most striking, as to me, this particular judge seemed to have a severe lack of understanding of the complexities of intimate partner relationships.  He ruled that since the two did indeed, technically, live at separate addresses, the act of Laura refusing to leave qualified her as a “trespasser” and that Tom was justified in using “reasonable force” to make her leave as soon as soon as she refused.  The judge then used the photo evidence of Laura’s injuries to prove that she resisted leaving, and this therefore further justified Tom to use an increased level of force to get Laura to leave.  Furthermore, the Defense pointed out that the accused, a Karate instructor, “…could have hurt you more…” and the fact that he did not showed the accused demonstrated restraint.

The Crown Attorney pleaded with the judge, and with increasing urgency, that this case “cannot be viewed in the context of a trespassing”, her voice audibly breaking, but in this Judge’s strict reading of the legal definition, these pleas fell on deaf ears.  The charges were thrown out, the victim left crying and embarrassed, and most importantly, left with the undeniable feeling that the court system had failed her.  If such an event were to happen again and worse, would this woman ever call the police again…I seriously doubt it….

This case really illustrated to me why I feel the issue of DV and DV courts is so important and why we need projects like Courtwatch.  By no means do I think that the judge’s ruling in this case is ‘illegal’ and I understood why he made the decision that he did – it does not contravene the law, in the strictest sense of the word.  He followed all the legal tests available to him in order to come to his decision.  However, it does speak to the lack of understanding that our legal system has to the complexity of domestic violence and how difficult it is to establish a legal system that works properly and effectively in cases of domestic violence.  I would love to hear any comments that anyone may have on the ruling in this case!

In my discussions with friends and family about the Courtwatch project, many are shocked by even the idea of a “Courtwatch”, which speaks to a further discovery I feel I have made about our legal system.  Most Canadians do not want to think critically about our judiciary system, and can they really be blamed if they don’t?  Our legal system is the first and last line of defense of what is right and wrong in society and I think a lot of people do not want to contemplate that the legal system may be working improperly or actually creating new problems.  While whistle blowing happens to police, politicians, or bureaucrats, public attention is rarely drawn to stories of legal systems designed improperly as this shakes the very foundations of our society.  The DV courts were created with great intentions but whether they are living up to their design remains to be seen…This is the role of Courtwatch.

This blog is the start of our first foray into sharing information from our 2013 Courtwatch.  Thanks so much for bearing with this long first post, late ones will hopefully be shorter, and from our other volunteers so readers can get different perspectives from our time in Court.  Feel free to contact us at WomenatthecentrE- which is a provincial network of women’s survivors with a mandate to do advocacy and policy development to improve the community response to woman abuse and to make the system more sensitive, respective and accountable to women.

Hopefully you’ll check back to hear about some further experiences that we have at the DV courts and if you would like to get involved, again please contact us.

Finally I wanted to share a major sources of optimism both for Courtwatch, as a program, and Domestic Violence in Canada as an issue overall.  Our newly-appointed Federal Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, has made Domestic Violence one of her major priorities ( http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/09/09/rona_ambrose_makes_family_violence_a_priority_in_health_portfolio.html  ), and maybe with a new important advocate, more media attention, funding and policies will occur, aimed at improving the issue of Domestic Violence in Canada.

Thanks so much for your time reading! Please Check back soon!

Adam

 

 

About the author
Adam Helfand-Green
Hi, I'm a recent graduate from the University of Guelph with a Honors in Political Science and a Minor in History. I was introduced to the issue of Domestic Violence issues as a child, living with a mother who has done a great deal of work and advocacy on the subject. I am very excited to be working with WomenatthecentrE on our Courtwatch project and would love any feedback on our work. Oh...I also play guitar in a band

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