Final Report of the Ad Hoc Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group Reviewing Spousal Abuse Policies and Legislation


In September 2000, the federal, provincial and territorial (FPT) Ministers responsible for Justice directed the establishment of an ad hoc FPT working group to review the implementation and status of the mandatory or pro-charging and prosecutorial policies related to spousal abuse as well as several proposed legislative reforms. This working group was directed to report back to Ministers on the results of this review within one year.

The Ad Hoc FPT Working Group Reviewing Spousal Abuse Policies and Legislation was established in November 2000 and is co-chaired by the Department of Justice Canada and the Nova Scotia Department of Justice. The Working Group submitted its first report to FPT Ministers at their September 11, 2001, meeting. This first report included a final report on the review of proposed Criminal Code reforms and an interim report on the review of the spousal abuse charging and prosecutorial policies.

In response to this first report, Ministers approved the Working Group’s unanimous recommendation to amend section 127 of the Criminal Code (Disobeying Order of Court) to make it a hybrid offence, carrying a maximum penalty of two years when proceeded by indictment. Ministers also extended the mandate of the Working Group to enable it to complete its review of the spousal abuse policies.

The pro-charging and pro-prosecution policies for spousal abuse are, in fact, the applicable standards for all criminal conduct. Their specific application to spousal abuse cases underscores the need to make the critical distinction between the criminal justice system’s treatment of spousal abuse as a “criminal matter” and its historical treatment of spousal abuse as a “private matter.” Although the pro-charging and prosecution policies have been in place at the federal, provincial and territorial levels since the mid-1980s, the Working Group’s review of the policies represents the first co-ordinated review conducted across Canada.

The Working Group conducted an extensive review of research, including statistical data. In addition it endeavoured to obtain the input of frontline criminal justice personnel to assess their perspectives on how the policies are working, as well as to identify any inconsistencies between the policies as written and adopted and their day-to-day operation. The Working Group also considered how the spousal abuse policies reflected and responded to the diversity of spousal abuse victims.

The Report provides an overview of the nature and incidence of spousal abuse in Canada today. Although both women and men experience spousal abuse, the nature and severity of the spousal violence suffered by women is much worse, with the result that spousal abuse remains predominantly an issue of male violence against women.

The Report traces the adoption of the spousal abuse policies in Canada, commencing in 1981. It reviews the experiences with the policies by police, Crown prosecutors and victims. The Working Group has identified three key objectives of any criminal justice system response to spousal abuse: criminalizing spousal abuse; promoting the safety and security of the victim; and maintaining confidence in the administration of justice.

With respect to the charging policy, the Working Group concludes that it has contributed significantly to the strengthening of the criminal justice system response to spousal abuse. Despite some unintended negative consequences of the adoption of the pro-charging policy, the majority of victims strongly support the policy. The policy ensures a strong and consistent first line of response by the criminal justice system that helps to ensure the safety and security of spousal abuse victims. The Working Group recommends its continued retention.

Regarding the prosecution policy, the Working Group notes that its implementation has met with mixed results. However, properly interpreted and applied, the prosecution policy has had and can continue to have a positive impact in strengthening the criminal justice system’s response to spousal abuse. The Working Group recommends its continued retention.

The Working Group also reviewed the many innovative measures that have been implemented by federal, provincial and territorial governments to support and enhance the effectiveness of the spousal abuse policies in particular, and to strengthen the criminal justice system’s response to spousal abuse more generally.

Finally, the Working Group acknowledged that certain jurisdictions (federal, provincial and territorial governments) have policies and strategies that address not only spousal, but also family, violence. In this regard, the Working Group recognized that in many instances the measures related to spousal violence were part of a broader strategy to address family violence.

The Working Group reviewed the many innovative structures and models, including dedicated domestic violence courts, civil legislation to better protect victims against domestic violence, and intersectoral co-ordinating strategies and initiatives throughout the country. The Working Group also surveyed the availability of support programs including victim services; shelters and non-residential support programs for abused women and their children; interventions for children who are exposed to spousal abuse; abusive partner intervention programs; the development of risk assessment tools and monitoring/tracking systems; and training.

The Working Group concludes that these innovative measures and approaches have played a key role in supporting the implementation of the spousal abuse policies. They have also strengthened the criminal justice system’s response to spousal abuse by providing new ways and tools to ensure that the system is sensitive to the unique realities of spousal abuse. Accordingly, the Working Group recommends continued support for the development of new and innovative justice system responses to better support and safeguard the victim throughout the criminal justice process, to rehabilitate the offender, and to ensure a strong, co-ordinated multisectoral response to spousal abuse. Ongoing training for criminal justice personnel and evaluation of new measures are critical to ensure strong and effective criminal justice system responses to spousal abuse.

Finally, the Working Group also acknowledges that many gaps remain in our understanding of the causes of spousal abuse: the impact of the justice system response to this form of violence; and the effectiveness of the various programs and services for victims and offenders. The Working Group recommends that jurisdictions support research to address these information gaps in order to provide a foundation for building a more effective response to domestic violence. A list of the recommendations is provided in section V of this Report.