To be a victim is one thing. To be a survivor is quite another. In a world where violence against women and intimate partner violence (IPV) runs rampant and unabated, victims are everywhere, seen and unseen. But survivors — those who have endured, who continue to endure, who persevere against adversity — they are everywhere too. They too are unseen, their stories and lives hidden beneath the scars they carry and the pain in their hearts. Their voices, their words, and their lives have informed everything I am about to tell you. These survivors are those who have survived intimate partner violence as well as the self-representation process in the Ontario and Superior Courts of Justice. And I say “survived” because both are ordeals, violent and traumatizing in their own ways.
In the fall of 2022, as part of a course at the University of Toronto called Community Research Partnerships in Ethics, I was assigned to work with the National Self-Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP) to produce a research project based on their data and community of engagement. To be able to work with such an impactful organization was humbling, as well as daunting. But the lovely people in this organization, namely my Project Supervisor Dayna Cornwall and my Faculty Supervisor and Executive Director of NSRLP Jennifer Leitch, welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like anything was possible. Through them, I learned about the resilience and plight of self-represented litigants throughout Ontario and Canada — the reasoning behind their choices, the struggles they face in court, and the resources available to them (such as NSRLP’s primer series) to aid them in overcoming structural barriers to justice. Ideas for my research project began to form.
The folks at NSRLP then introduced me to another organization, WomenathecentrE, created and led by survivors for survivors, who strive to eradicate gender-based violence against women, girls, trans, 2-spirit, and gender diverse folks through personal, political, and social advocacy. The incredible people I met helped to open my eyes to the reality of intimate partner violence in Ontario. I was able to see the tangible steps staff at the Centre were taking to support women and all peoples in our own community, and the profound difference they were making in so many lives. I began to consider the ways in which intimate partner violence intersects with self-representation in court.
We formed a group including staff from the NSRLP, WomenatthecentrE, and a lawyer with knowledge of and enthusiasm for the topic. Together we discussed how the struggles of self-represented litigants are greatly compounded when they are also survivors of IPV. We discussed issues such as dealing with abuse in family court, the inefficacy of the justice system in resolving such issues, and the acute pain felt by those forced to endure these ordeals. With all of this information, as well as the connection the team and myself felt to these topics, I felt it right to link these subjects into one research question: How should the Ontario and Superior Court of Justice adapt to more effectively mitigate the psychological and social harms that self-representation has on women who are survivors of intimate partner violence?
This has been an ongoing issue tackled by various other individuals and organizations such as the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic and Luke’s Place, but the specific intersection between IPV and self-representation has received less attention. The answer to my project question is rooted in fact, research, and most importantly, experience. The paper I have written, “Voices and Visions of the Future: Self-Represented Litigants who are Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence,” is directed towards the Ontario Justice System, including recommendations on how to improve the system when it comes to SRLs who are survivors of IPV. These recommendations stem from research, but also from the voices of those who have undergone the process themselves, via interviews conducted by staff at WomenatthecentrE.
These voices have articulated that the current justice system is not adequate in addressing issues regarding SRLs who are IPV survivors. The court is “cold,” “unforgiving,” and “cruel” – a clinical process that demands the excision of emotion and humanity from cases without regard for the SRLs who have undergone the very trauma they are forced to speak about. The people in the system (lawyers, judges, legal personnel) are too frequently insensitive or simply uneducated on how to interact with survivors. And the system itself is lengthy, dense, and elitist, making it difficult for SRLs, much less IPV survivors, to enter and plead their cases effectively. From these deficiencies stem many recommendations from survivors, which fall under two categories. The first, survivor-specific recommendations, request improvements to the procedural aspect of court to make it more accessible to SRLs new to the system, more organizations like NSRLP and WomenathecentrE to give support, and better training for legal personnel in handling abuse and IPV. The second category of recommendations, systemic improvement, request drastic change to the system itself through the creation of a separate system to hear cases of IPV survivors in family court matters, headed by personnel trained in handling IPV and abuse. After enduring the current process, survivors genuinely believe that cases would be better in this new system, and improving the current system, though somewhat helpful, only puts small bandages on deep wounds.
To be frank, my experience of writing this paper was not easy. In terms of content, reading about the experiences of IPV survivors was heartbreaking, and listening to these stories from survivors themselves was even more painful for me, much less those who were reliving the trauma of their experiences in the justice system. I also felt a deep obligation and responsibility to inscribe these stories in a way that did justice to all of the survivors I was representing. I am by no means an expert, just a university student making her way in the world, so the task before me was daunting and in many moments, the writing process was filled with hesitation. But I was able to power through with the encouragement I received from the team and the interviewees. Despite enduring so much, their resilience never wavered, and neither did their faith that one day, the system would change.
It is my hope that this paper contributes to efforts to ensure that self-representation for survivors of intimate partner violence will become easier, fairer, less traumatizing, and more just. Although there is much work to be done, the hope is that we might ultimately achieve a reality where survivors who self-represent can do so without experiencing further abuse.
They have spoken. Their voices are loud. It is time for us to listen.