HELP Toolkit: Identifying and Responding to Family Violence for Family Law Legal Advisers – HELP Guide

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HELP Guide – How to Have a Discussion about Family ViolenceEndnote 1

Learning about your client’s experience of family violence is crucial to informing the legal advice and recommendations you give them. The approach set out in this Guide is designed to help you get the information you will need for your file, and is intended to be incorporated within your existing practices.

While each case is different, the overall approach should involve the same four components (“HELP”):

HAVE an initial discussion about family violence

EXPLORE immediate risks and safety concerns

LEARN more about the family violence to help you determine what to recommend to your client

PROMOTE safety throughout the family law case

It is generally recommended that you discuss family violence at your first client meeting and that you continue to apply the HELP approach below at subsequent meetings. As you build rapport and trust with your client, they may be more willing and able to discuss their experiences of family violence with you. In addition, family violence is dynamic and can change over time. Therefore, it is important to check in with clients over the course of a case.

Your ability to explore issues of family violence with your client in a given meeting will be impacted by the complexity of the family law file, the realities of costs and time, and your client’s readiness to engage in discussions. Again, the HELP approach is meant to be flexible. However, it is important to remember that what you learn about your client’s experiences of family violence has the potential to impact many aspects of the family law case.

Tips for safe and effective discussions

Below you will find a few important tips to help you discuss family violence with your client in a way that is safe, sensitive and effective. In addition, Tab #6: Tips for Discussions with Your Client provides additional tips, including how to have discussions through email and other virtual communications.

“H”: Have an initial discussion about family violence

Initiating a discussion about family violence can happen in different ways. For example:

Regardless of how you initiate the discussion about family violence, remember to follow your client’s lead. Tailor your approach to your individual client’s particular situation.

Initial meetings with clients may not allow for sufficient time for an in-depth discussion of family violence, and your client might not be ready to disclose. Developing trust with your clients is key. Beyond that, the “H” part of the approach is about gathering enough information to allow you to identify any indicators of family violence or disclosures your clients are ready to make so you can better address immediate risk and safety concerns. Talking about family violence is a process that will unfold over several meetings with your client.

H.1 If your client discloses family violence at the outset

Some clients may disclose their experiences to you at the outset of your initial meeting or to staff in your office when they make an appointment. These clients may have already written down their experiences or identified evidence of the abusive behaviours, or your staff may have taken notes. You can still follow the HELP approach, using the information you have as a starting point for the discussion.

H.2 If not, how to start: Ask general questions about the family relationships

Often your clients will not immediately disclose their experiences, and you will need to introduce the topic of family violence. It is usually a good idea to start the discussion by asking generally about the family relationships. For example:

H.3 If you become aware of potential indicators of family violence

You might become aware of possible indicators of family violence when asking about other topics, such as how the couple made decisions about their children or managed the household’s finances.

A client may reveal information that suggests coercive control by the ex-partner, for example not letting the client see family or friends, not giving them access to their own bank account or preventing them from practising their religion. This information can serve as a starting point for a discussion about family violence.

Other possible indicators of family violence that victims might display or describe include things, such as:

See Tab #9: Asking about Specific Forms of Family Violence for additional indicators of family violence.

Interpreting indicators of family violence can be challenging, as your client may present some indicators without ever having experienced abuse. For example, if a client with a disability presents potential indicators of family violence, it may be difficult to discern whether these indicators are linked to abuse, experiences of devaluation or the disability itself.Endnote 4

If you identify possible indicators of family violence, you may wish to use this as an opening to ask about family violence. Start with asking about the behaviour. For example:

If the responses to these questions uncover possible indicators of family violence, you can introduce more direct questioning with the following:

H.4 Asking directly about family violence

There are many different ways to introduce the topic of family violence. For example, you could acknowledge that it is a difficult topic, but one that you talk to all your clients about.

To help your client understand what you mean by “family violence,” you may want to offer them a definition, such as the one set out in the Divorce Act. For example:

If your client indicates a willingness to proceed with talking about family violence and there is sufficient time left in your meeting to allow for this discussion, you can ask some initial questions to begin to identify whether family violence is a concern. It can be helpful to provide examples of behaviour, as they may not recognize their experiences as abusive. If your client indicates that they have experienced behaviour that might be family violence, ask them to describe it to you. The following are examples of some initial questions you could ask:Endnote 5

See Tab #9: Asking about Specific Forms of Family Violence for some more specific questions you could ask if there is time at this initial meeting or for future meetings.

Give the client time to think and allow plenty of time for responses; this may result in some awkward silences. Remember that this may be the first time that anyone has asked your client these questions.

H.5 When family violence is suspected but not disclosed

If you suspect your client or their children may have experienced family violence, but they do not disclose it to you, it is important to respect your client’s autonomy. Recognize that there are many reasons why a client may not disclose their experiences to you. See Tab #1: Reasons Why Your Client Might Not Disclose Experiences of Family Violence. Remember to check in with your clients about family violence in subsequent meetings, as they may be ready to disclose once trust and rapport increase. In addition, it is a good practice to ask about risk and safety concerns regardless of whether the client has disclosed family violence. See HELP Guide Section E.

H.6 Responding to a disclosure

It is important to demonstrate that you are open to having your clients show distress, for example through crying. This can be done for example by:

If the client was accompanied by a support person, you can offer to step out and have the support person join them from the waiting room. If the client is too distraught to continue, you can speak with them about available supports and suggest rescheduling for another time. Be aware that despite having made a disclosure, your client may still not be ready to share specific details about their experiences.

Respond to the client’s trust in you and willingness to talk about these difficult issues with gratitude and non-judgment. While you can denounce the behaviours, avoid vilifying the other party. Thank the client for sharing information with you, validate how they are feeling and assure them they are not at fault.

Do not promise them everything will be OK, but help them to understand that they can take steps to get help including to protect them and their children. For example:

“E”: Explore immediate risks and safety concerns

When a client makes contact with a family law legal adviser, this can increase their risk of violence or of escalating violence. As there are many reasons why a client might not initially disclose their family violence experiences to you, it is a good idea to ask about safety regardless of whether they have disclosed anything. Discuss safety implications of potential legal and non-legal actions with the client.

E.1 Be attuned to factors that can indicate increased risk for continued violence or lethal violence

While not all family violence or family homicides can be predicted, some risk factors have been consistently identified in homicide reviews and research. The following indicators can indicate the presence of immediate heightened risk.Endnote 6

Risks for continuing violence Lethality risk factors
  • A pattern of past emotional, financial, physical or sexual violence and abuse against family members
  • Sexual abuse
  • Financial control with abuse
  • Emotional and psychological abuse associated with coercion or control
  • Prior criminal conviction for violence
  • The degree to which the violence is recent
  • Abuse and violence toward other family members, former intimate partners, and members of the public
  • Escalation of frequency or severity of abuse and violence
  • Patterns of generalized violence against non-family members
  • Controlling and obsessive forms of emotional or psychological bond (e.g., monitoring, stalking, high levels of possessiveness, jealousy)
  • Failure to comply with restraining or no-contact orders, support and other court orders, and dropping out of domestic violence intervention programs
  • Victim fear of the perpetrator
  • Unstable lifestyle behaviours (e.g., erratic employment, refusal to assume family responsibilities)
  • Substance use (alcohol or drug)
  • Separation (particularly for women)
  • Access to weapons, particularly to guns
  • Unemployment
  • Pending or actual separation (for female victims)
  • Prior domestic violence, escalating in severity or frequency
  • Presence of children in the home, particularly children not biologically related to the perpetrator
  • Death threats
  • Attempted strangulation (choking)
  • Suicidal tendencies and attempts to commit suicide
  • Stalking, monitoring
  • Forced sexual acts and sexual abuse
  • Victim fear of being killed
  • Controlling, obsessive forms of psychological bond (e.g., high levels of possessive jealousy)
  • Threat(s) with weapons
  • Violence during pregnancy
  • Significant perpetrator life changes

Be aware that a victim’s risk is compounded when several of the above risk factors are present in their case. Note that strangulation or choking is strongly associated with domestic homicide.

E.2 Ask about risk and safety

While legal advisers are not trained to do actual risk assessmentsFootnote ii, it is good practice to ask some general questions about your client’s risk and safety to know whether it might be appropriate to refer them to services that may help them stay safe.

Below are some sample questions that can be integrated into your discussion with the client, but they should not be asked as a checklist.Endnote 7 Remember to keep the risk factors in mind when asking your client about their safety and risk.

E.3 Address immediate danger

If the client responds “yes” to any questions about immediate risk and safety concerns, consider these important follow-up actions:

1. Explore with them whether they have a plan for their safety before they leave your office.

Encourage your client to seek specialized help in assessing their level of danger. They may want to reach out to family violence services, such as a frontline advocate or victim services.

These services have experience in helping victims in crisis and can support your client to address safety concerns. See Tab #10: Safety Planning.

2. Sometimes, it is appropriate for your client to call child protection and/or the police.

It may be helpful for your client to talk to you, another legal adviser or an advocate to understand the complexities around involvement of police or child protection services. See Legal Response Guide LR.4.2 and Tab #11: What Clients Need to Know about Contacting the Police.

3. You may want to discuss the option of seeking a Protection/Restraining Order.

See the Legal Response Guide LR.1.3.

4. Discuss safe ways to contact your client.

5. Clearly flag files with limits on how you can communicate with your client.

It is a good practice to create a communications form, outlining the client’s preferences for safe communication. This form will help office staff avoid accidental communications that the ex-partner can access (e.g., a bill sent via mail, when the client has said no mail should be sent).

E.4 Making referrals

If you suspect family violence or it is disclosed, you should gather some information to determine what types of immediate support your client may need. For example, you may want to ask your client if they or their children have any immediate needs such as a safe place to stay.

Once you have a better sense of your client’s situation, you can suggest how they can get the assistance they require. Key services for immediate safety and advocacy may include:

Be sensitive to the fact that your client’s needs may be different depending on their backgrounds (e.g., gender, ethnocultural origins). You may also have to consider other needs for your client, such as costs, transportation, language, accessibility, and access to childcare. It is important to avoid making any assumptions about your clients based on their background; ask your clients for their preference regarding referrals to services. See Tab #12: Making Referrals.

E.5 If your client goes back to their ex-partner

Many victims of family violence try to terminate their relationship with their abuser more than once. Some will return several times.Endnote 8 The reasons for these returns are numerous and will vary (e.g., ex-partner’s expressions of remorse, continued emotional attachment to the relationship, economic need, fear of losing the children, fear of retaliation).

Or, your client may not have yet left their abusive relationship.

For these clients, it will be important to refer them to community-based services and other resources that can help with safety planning.

“L”: Learn more about the family violence to help you determine what to recommend to your client

Gathering details about your client’s experience of family violence will help you to determine what types of family law processes and remedies would be safe and appropriate. It is likely that in most cases you will need to gather this information over several meetings due to time constraints, a client’s level of comfort, and/or their ability to get into details. Remember, you should revisit the issue of family violence throughout the family law case, regardless of whether there was a disclosure in the initial meeting.

When clients have disclosed family violence, you can explain why gathering more detailed information is important. For example:

Tab #9: Asking about Specific Forms of Family Violence provides examples of questions you might ask for each of these different forms of family violence, including:

When asking about different forms of family violence, you should gather information about the seriousness, frequency, duration and impacts of family violence; this will affect the advice you give. It is also important to look for patterns of behaviour, particularly coercive controlling behaviour.

After asking about different forms of family violence based on the information your client has provided, it is important to ask the client whether they have been harmed by their ex-partner in any other ways that you have not asked them about. For example:

It may also be important to ask about family violence that is perpetrated by extended family members. For example, you should consider whether:

In the course of your discussions about family violence, your client may disclose that they have engaged in abusive behaviours. See Tab #4: Representing a Client Who May Have Engaged in Family Violence.

“P”: Promote safety throughout the family law case

Family violence can be unpredictable and risks may continue, increase or change throughout the family law case. It is important to check in with clients about their immediate risk and safety concerns, and continue to watch for signs of violence. For example, if you do not hear from a client who normally responds rapidly to your emails, you may want to check in with them. It is also important to plan for times of increased risk.

P.1 Check in with clients about safety and family violence

As previously noted, it is a good practice to check in with your clients over the course of the case about safety concerns and the potential escalation of any violence. They may be experiencing new or more serious forms of family violence, or they may be ready to talk about things that happened in the past.

Checking in with your clients does not need to be a long process. By asking a few questions, you may be able to uncover information from your client that is relevant. For example:

P.2 Risks relating to the family law process

Separation is a time of heightened risk for family violence, including potentially lethal violence. In addition, involvement with legal advisers and the family law process itself can increase risk.

For example:

You can work with your client to understand and reduce risks in relation to the family law process. In addition, you may want to encourage them to reach out to community supports to develop a safety plan. See Tab #10: Safety Planning.

P.3 Safety planning for you and your office staff

When thinking about immediate risk and safety concerns for your client, also consider the same for yourself and others in your office.

The following considerations can help you evaluate your risk and the risk to your staff:Endnote 9

Do you have a safety plan in place for you and your staff that addresses safety at the office, at home and at other locations, such as the courthouse?

Additional good practices include:

P.4 Taking care of yourself

When a legal adviser works with clients who have experienced trauma as a result of family violence, the trauma can have an impact on the legal adviser too.

The impact of exposure to this trauma is cumulative and can manifest in different ways. Some negative coping strategies that you should be aware of include:

Be aware of how your cases involving family violence may affect you. It may be helpful to:

Below are a few online resources that you may find helpful.

Canadian Bar Association:

Canadian Lawyer Magazine:

For information about the wellness resources available to you, please contact your law society or bar association.