Ontario Law Schools Working Hard to Help Students Understand and Respond to Domestic Violence

In a February 6 article in the Toronto Star, Olivia Carville stated that Ontario law schools are failing in providing domestic violence training for their students.

Unfortunately, the outcome of her article was predetermined by the narrow scope of her question. Her focus on whether there is a mandatory subject in which the topic is addressed cannot capture the many things that law schools do, in curricular and in extracurricular ways, to help students learn about and respond to domestic violence and violence against women. What is worse, the ‘single compulsory course’ inquiry is based on a too simplistic understanding of how best to teach and to learn about domestic violence.

What follows is a description of some of the activities at my law school – Windsor Law. I know, however, that other law schools can tell similar stories.

At Windsor Law, we use the entire three-year student experience, curricular and extracurricular, to help students understand the root causes of violence against women and domestic violence and how they might be recognized and prevented. In our first year compulsory curriculum, faculty address in a variety of ways issues related to power structures and gender biases and assumptions. Understanding these issues is a prerequisite to understanding the complex ways domestic violence operates in women’s lives.

For example, in our compulsory Access to Justice course students read about and discuss the barriers faced by women experiencing domestic violence while also living in poverty, struggling with precarious immigration status, and supporting their children. All of our first year Criminal Law courses have at least 2 classes that address sexual violence against women. Gender bias and sexual violence against women are also themes running through some upper year mandatory and optional courses.

We address issues of domestic violence in orientation training and in file supervision in our legal aid clinics. In our Legal Aid Windsor (LAW) clinic, for example, we have since 1974 used a joint law/social work model. This choice was made because of the early realization that many of the problems experienced by clinic clients, including domestic violence, are often not effectively addressed if the only response is a legal response. Every student who works in our LAW clinic learns how to advise clients and manage files using this interdisciplinary approach, and has access to a supervising social worker where that assistance is needed.

There is a longstanding collaboration between Hiatus House, Windsor and Essex County’s emergency shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, our LAW clinic, and the law school. Our systemic advocacy work has always highlighted the needs of domestic violence victims in relation to housing, income security and criminal injuries compensation. Our students raise funds for Hiatus House through events that also inform and educate the entire law school community about domestic violence. Other student activities include bringing speakers to the law school to speak about these topics and organizing events to raise consciousness about sexual violence, including a Sexual Assault Awareness Week.

In another of our legal aid clinics, CLA (Community Legal Aid) we are working with Legal Aid Ontario to provide training in domestic violence to clinic staff and some of our clinic students. We are also incorporating in CLA the same interdisciplinary approach to the delivery of legal services (law and social work) that has been used in LAW for over 40 years. We ensure that formal training is provided to the students who deal with domestic violence issues.

The University of Windsor is a national leader in providing training as part of the Bystander Initiative. This training program encourages student-participants to see themselves as potential bystanders who could intervene and stop an assault before it happens and provide appropriate support to survivors. Students learn the importance of speaking out against social norms that support sexual assault and coercion. Ours is the first Canadian campus to use the program, and the Faculties of Arts, Law and Business have made it available to their students. The training emphasizes the importance of personal and community responsibility for social change around issues of violence against women.

These are a few examples of the training, education and activities at Windsor Law School. Gender and domestic violence are such complex issues that training in the competencies to deal with them must occur in various ways, curricular and extracurricular, mandatory and optional, throughout the three year law school curriculum. And that training must also extend beyond law school. Lawyers who work in fields where these issues arise should have periodic retraining to ensure that their skills and competencies remain sharp and informed by best practice and current research. The same applies to judges.

Can law schools do more? Yes, we can and we must. And in doing so we will be assisted by the work of the Law Commission of Ontario referred to in the Toronto Star article (Curriculum Materials in Ontario Law Schools: A Framework for Teaching about Violence Against Women). But are there numerous examples in Ontario law schools of teaching and learning activities that help law students and faculty to understand domestic violence and, hopefully, to be agents of change? Yes there are.

Camille Cameron
Windsor Law School

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