Intimate Partner Violence & Navigating the Family Law System

December 6, 2023
Rosemary Bocska

Article written by Rosemary Bocska

Each year, December 6th marks the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada. It’s a day dedicated to honouring the memory of the 14 women tragically killed in 1989 at l'École Polytechnique in Montreal. It’s also a time for heightening awareness about the ongoing struggle against domestic violence – or what is now known as intimate partner violence (IPV).

As a family lawyers, we often see this struggle play out within the Canadian Family Law System. Fortunately, our legal system has many mechanisms for trying to address IPV and protect victims. If you are one of them, this article can help you. It not only covers key points, but also lists some of the steps you can take to initiate Family Law proceedings if you are facing IPV at home. Remember, you are not alone. We are here for you.

Close up focus African woman show palm hand to oppose domestic violence

Who Does IPV Pertain To?

IPV is an all-too-prevalent form of gender-based violence, usually against women, and usually with men as the perpetrators. It can happen in at any stage of the relationship, including after any sort of split. It is important to note that IPV is not limited to heterosexual relationships. While we often see IPV against women, it can occur between partners regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

What Forms Does IPV Take?

The term IPV encompasses a wide range of mistreatment along the lines of physical, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse. At a more granular level, it can take many forms, including:

  • Physical abuse;
  • Stalking;
  • Sexual violence;
  • Emotional/psychological abuse;
  • Financial/economic abuse;
  • Coercive control; and
  • Cyberviolence (which is violence facilitated by technology).

How is IPV Handled under Canada Law?

Recognizing the impact of IPV on families, the Canadian legal system has implemented firm measures to protect victims and their children.

Violet ribbon and gavel on grey background - Concept of Domestic Violence law

Under Criminal Law: The Canadian Criminal Code contains numerous provisions that make it an offence to commit many forms of IPV, including physical and sexual assault, financial abuse, psychological abuse or neglect, and criminal harassment (stalking). It also makes it a crime for one spouse to sexually assault the other. Also, under Ontario’s Mandatory Charging Policy, any time police believe there has been IPV, they are obliged to lay a criminal charge.

Under Family Law: If you are a victim of IPV in Ontario, you have many available methods to protect yourself under the provisions of the Family Law Act and related legislation. They include:

  • Protection Orders and Restraining Orders: If you are in imminent danger, you can seek a protection order or restraining order that legally requires your abuser to stay away or stop communicating with you. (And note that as of August 2023, the Law Commission of Ontario is examining ways to improve the effectiveness of protection orders to prevent IPV in the province. See here
  • Parenting Time and Decision-Making Responsibility: The Family Court must always give primary consideration to the best interests of your child, and that duty is heightened when IPV is a factor. The court has many options, but these include making orders about decision-making authority and parenting time arrangements that ensures your child’s safety and well-being. The federal Divorce Act also requires the court to take the presence of IPV into account whenever it makes orders for parenting arrangements as part of your divorce.
  • Exclusive Possession of the Home: If you and your abuser live together, the court may grant you exclusive possession of the home. This means your abuser will be ordered to leave, while you (and any children you have) are allowed to stay. The court can do this after considering numerous factors, among them the question of whether there has been “any violence committed by a spouse against the other spouse or children”.
  • Financial Support: Finally, as a victim of IPV you may be facing economic abuse that makes it difficult for you to leave the abusive relationship you’re in. Family courts can address this by ordering your abuser to pay spousal or child support, which will help with your financial stability.

Steps to Initiating Family Law Proceedings

If you want to take advantage of the Family Law protections listed above, you will need to start by taking certain steps. We offer the following tips:

  • Document the Abuse: Keep a detailed record of the incidents of IPV, including dates, times, and descriptions of the abusive behavior. This documentation can serve as crucial evidence in Family Court.
  • Seek Immediate Safety: If you’re in immediate danger, contact the police and consider getting help from emergency shelters and support services if you need a place to stay.
  • Consult with a Lawyer: Talk to a Family Lawyer who has experience with IPV. They can give you guidance on your legal rights and options. They can also help prevent your abuser from harming you further through the litigation process (for example, by applying for generous parenting time or sole decision-making over your children, despite taking little interest in them previously). You may be eligible for Legal Aid, to help with the costs.
  • Apply for a Protection Order: You can work with your Family Lawyer to immediately apply for protection orders or restraining orders to ensure your safety and that of your children.
  • Rely on Other Help: There are many community resources you can rely on. These include:
    • Assaulted Women's Helpline (24-hour crisis line: 1-866-863-0511 or in the GTA, 416-863-0511)
    • Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic
    • Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada
    • Family Service Toronto (Violence Against Women (VAW), Next Steps, David Kelley Lesbian and Gay Community Counselling programs)
    • Femaide (24-hour crisis line for French-speaking women)
    • Interval House
    • Native Child and Family Services Toronto
    • Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres
    • Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/ Domestic Violence Treatment Centres
    • Ontario Works
    • Service Canada Employment Insurance
    • Shelter Safe
    • Support Services for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse
    • Talk4Healing (helpline for Aboriginal Women)
    • Toronto Employment & Social Services
    • Toronto Police Service
    • Victim Services Toronto

You’re Not Alone

The National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women is not just a day of reflection – it’s also a chance to remind victims of IPV that they have many sources of help to turn to. If you are one of them, getting this support is a vital first step towards protecting yourself and your children, and making the journey towards healing and justice. We are here for you!

Group of diverse hands holding each other support together aerial view