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



One of the most important objectives of the pro-charge policies is the protection of victims through provision of a denunciatory response to spousal/partner violence with the ultimate goal of deterring subsequent abusive behaviour. The directive to proceed with charges and prosecution, notwithstanding the victim’s wishes, was seen as beneficial to victims by taking responsibility for such action out of their hands.

However, the objectives of domestic violence victims frequently conflict with those of the justice system. Many victims have goals other than legal sanctions—such as staying in their home, preserving their relationship, obtaining counselling for their partners, and protecting themselves and their children. Even with a prosecutorial policy to proceed with charges wherever possible, unwilling victims find ways to circumvent the criminal justice process: by failing to attend court, by showing strong reluctance to testify and by changing their evidence on the witness stand.[137]

Governments have responded by providing services to support victims of spousal or partner violence who are involved with the criminal justice system. Victim services, in this context, are defined to mean services provided as a result of the victim’s involvement with the criminal justice system, as distinct from other services, such as shelters, that may be provided to victims. While the objective of all such programs is to provide for the victim’s safety and well-being, some victims services have the implicit (and sometimes the explicit) objective of ensuring that the victims co-operate with justice system processing—so that they do not change their testimony or otherwise withdraw their co-operation from the criminal proceedings.[138]

In jurisdictions committed to retaining or implementing aggressive policies of charging and prosecution in domestic violence cases, the availability of information and services to victims of crime can be expected to increase victim satisfaction with the process. The success of the London, Ontario, mandatory charging policy has been attributed, in large measure, to the availability and effectiveness of specialized services in the community.[139]

i. Cross-jurisdictional Overview of Victim Services

While all jurisdictions offer victim services, the scope of the services and the delivery agents differ significantly. Some are police-based, some are system-based (including correctional), and others are community-based. Programs may be delivered by government, police or community organizations and by paid staff or volunteers. Services include crisis intervention, advocacy and support, court accompaniment, information about case status, assistance with victim impact statements, referral to other services and criminal injuries compensation. The nature of services provided varies at the local level, reflecting the needs and capacity of individual communities. Volunteers and community agencies first offered many of these services and they continue to play a vital role.

Primary differences among these services are that some offer no criminal injuries compensation program to victims, and some offer limited or no counselling, support or court accompaniment. Comprehensiveness of service, staff caseload and geographic coverage appear to be common issues.

In British Columbia, the province plans to fund 91 police-based victim service agencies serving 113 police jurisdictions by the end of 2002 -03. There will also be 62 community-based programs, including programs for male survivors and Aboriginal victims.

Ontario is fast expanding and integrating its support to victims through its newly created Victim Services Division within the Ministry of the Attorney General, which brings together all victim services from three justice ministries. Currently, the Victim Services Division is responsible for the Victim Witness Assistance Program, now in 42 sites and expanding to all 54 court jurisdictions, in addition to police and community-based victims services. As well, funding has been provided for approximately 119 transitional support workers throughout the province who provide support to abused women (not tied to the justice system); for approximately 100 counselling programs for abused women; for approximately 131 support groups within the Early Intervention Program for Child Witnesses of Domestic Violence; and for a province-wide Assaulted Women’s Helpline and enhanced crisis line services for the francophone community.

Quebec has Centres of Victims Services in 11 sites around the province, providing support to victims as they interact with the justice system. Crown counsel are members of intersectoral committees around the province. Correctional officials also participate in the intersectoral committees. For the past few years, the Correctional Services of Quebec (CSQ) have been providing services to victims of spousal violence, including certain information regarding the offenders. In addition, the CSQ intends to implement the Act Respecting the Québec Correctional System which contains provisions related specifically to spousal violence. With these provisions, the granting of information to victims will be legally sanctioned and further adapted to victims’ needs. Moreover, the CSQ uses an identifier for spousal violence files, primarily so victims receive appropriate information in a timely manner. Finally, victims of spousal violence will have the opportunity to make presentations regarding certain forms of release of incarcerated offenders.

In Manitoba, extensive services are provided through the Women’s Advocacy Program, community-based services funded by government, and RCMP-based victim service units—most funded by the province, some operated by volunteers and all supported in-kind by the RCMP.

In New Brunswick, victims services are provided by RCMP volunteer victim assistance co-ordinators, by four municipal police-based programs, by community agencies with direct police liaison, and by the province’s victims services program, which is offered throughout the province. Newfoundland and Labrador offers a system-based program with staff in 10 regional offices and 1 provincial office. Nova Scotia also operates a provincial program through the Department of Justice, augmented by services provided by RCMP community assistance volunteers and programs provided by municipal police services in some locations. In Prince Edward Island, Victim Services at the Office of the Attorney General operates throughout the province and provides assistance at all stages of the criminal justice process.

In Saskatchewan, there are 17 police-based co-ordinators (RCMP and municipal police), eight Aboriginal resource officers in five centres, and three centres with victim/witness co-ordinators. More than 350 victim services personnel and volunteers work out of approximately 50 RCMP detachments. In Alberta, victim services are provided through 107 police-based victim service units, as well as through community-based programs that offer specialized services and through Public Assistance Units based in Crown offices. In Yukon, services are provided in six sites through the Family Violence Prevention Unit as well as by RCMP victim assistance workers. Victim witness assistance staff also operate out of the federal Crown office. In the Northwest Territories, victim/witness assistance staff operate out of the federal Crown offices in Yellowknife and Inuvik; the Government of the Northwest Territories also provides funding to community organizations in four communities to provide victim support, information and follow-up. In Nunavut, victim assistance staff operate out of the Crown office.

A number of jurisdictions provide emergency telephone lines for women in crisis and a variety of non-justice-based services. In Quebec, for example, community victim support groups operate a 24-hour phone line to support and comfort victims.

A cross-jurisdictional overview of victim services is provided in section VI of this Report.

ii. Elements of an Effective Response

Provision of victim support is a critical ingredient in an effective response to family violence. A number of studies have been conducted on victims’ needs and their satisfaction with the criminal justice system (see above). Victims consistently say they require specific services and information related to the criminal justice system, such as non-evidentiary pre-trial preparation; details on the status of their particular case; notification of the accused’s status at various intervals throughout the case, from charge and arrest to sentence completion; co-ordinated access to services; and support as they participate in the justice system.

Key components of an effective victim service are as follows:

iii. Challenges

Domestic violence differs significantly from extra-familial violence in terms of the intimate (and frequently ongoing) relationship between victim and assailant. The criminal justice system has a special role to play with victims of these offences in providing support to enable them to participate in the process. The challenge is often to reconcile the competing, and sometimes conflicting, goals of the victim and the criminal justice system.

With limited resources, jurisdictions need also to decide where support to victims can be provided most strategically. The justice system must recognize that community agencies have long played a vital role in providing assistance to victims and their role should be supported. Mechanisms to ensure collaboration between the community and the justice system are required to meet victims’ needs.

iv. Recommendations

It is recommended that jurisdictions, in collaboration with community agencies, continue to ensure the provision of support services to victims to assist them throughout their involvement with the criminal justice system. These services should include, at a minimum:


i. Types of Support Services

Shelters and transition houses

For many years, the only services dedicated solely to responding to the abuse of women were shelters. Places of safety for women (and frequently children) are provided in all provinces and territories, although the range of services—including timing of the intervention[140] and levels of funding provided—differ. Facilities include transition houses and shelters, second-stage housing, safe houses and family resource centres. All are residential-based programs or have a residential component (meaning that they can accommodate abused women and their children overnight or for varying periods of time). Most provide counselling and other support programs (such as safe and secure emergency housing, crisis intervention, emotional support, information and referral, food, shelter, advocacy, a crisis telephone line and children’s programs) within the shelter. Some also offer outreach services to former residents and non-residents through telephone, by letter, through walk-in contact or through support groups.

According to the Transition Home Survey 1999-2000,[141] 62 percent of the facilities provided services for women with disabilities and 63 percent provided culturally sensitive services for Aboriginal women, while nearly 6 in 10 shelters provided culturally sensitive services to ethno-cultural and visible minority residents.[142] Services are generally offered by paid staff and volunteers. See section VI of this Report for an overview of shelter services provided.

In 1999-2000, 96,359 women and dependent children were admitted to 448 shelters for abused women across Canada.[143] The GSS of 1999 determined that 11 percent of women who experienced spousal violence in the last five years stayed in a shelter.[144] While women under the age of 25 experience the highest rates of spousal violence,[145] these women represented a small proportion of abused women residing in shelters (20 percent).[146] As to why proportionately few abused women seek refuge in shelters, it has been speculated that many women turn to friends or relatives or have the financial means to use other alternatives.[147] Still, on a given day (April 17, 2000), 254 women and 222 children were turned away from shelters across Canada, for the most part because the shelters were full.[148]

According to the 1993 Violence Against Women Survey, the severity of the violence helps determine whether women choose to enter a shelter. The survey revealed that 19 percent of women overall had at some point been injured severely enough to seek medical attention; for women who stayed in shelters, the figure was 63 percent.[149]

The research points to the important role of shelters in providing outreach programs in addition to residential services. Still, the majority of women never seek shelter services. More varied accessible services are advocated, such as direct recruitment in civil and criminal courts; enhanced phone contact; brief sessions providing condensed information; and an intermediate form of counselling between phone counselling and shelter-based counselling, such as a drop-in centre.[150]

Shelters developed from the growth of the women’s movement in the 1970s. Despite their prevalence across North America as the primary resource to protect assaulted women from violent partners, few shelters have been evaluated. Consequently, little is known about the impact of shelter stays on users of these facilities. There is even considerable debate regarding the measures of success that should be used. Much of the research is based on the assumption that the optimal goal of shelter programs, and one with which women were presumed to concur, was for independent living apart from the abusive partner.[151] Shelters’ success, as measured against that outcome, is seen as limited. The need to reassess independent living as the major criterion for success has generally been acknowledged. Statistics regarding the number of women who return to their partners after staying in a shelter vary from between 49 percent and 58 percent (1981 to 1989)[152] to 17 percent (April 17, 2000).[153]

Although some recent legislative reforms have as a primary objective the restraint of the perpetrator, to prevent disruption in the lives of abused spouses and children as much as possible, short-term safe housing and outreach services for women in crisis situations will undoubtedly continue to form an essential component of the continuum of services for victims of spousal and partner violence.

Other non-residential support programs for abused women and their families

London, Ontario, was one of the earliest communities to offer support, advocacy, legal and other information, and referral to services for abused women on a non-residential basis, recognizing that services need to be provided in multiple ways.

Women’s centres and family resource centres also provide abused women with support, information and referral. Some shelters have begun to provide a range of services under the rubric of one board or through involvement on the boards of other service providers.

See section VI of this Report for a cross-jurisdictional survey of these programs.

ii. Elements of an Effective Response

Due to the multiple needs of victims and their families, a range of services must be available to complement government support services for victims involved with the criminal justice system. Services required include the following:

Decisions regarding these issues must be made quickly, at least in the interim, and must recognize as paramount the need to ensure the safety of victims and their children.

An effective response to victims can be provided in two ways:

Support can be provided via non-residential service, such as family resource centres, battered women’s advocacy clinics, women’s centres, shelter outreach programs and many other vehicles, which already operate throughout the country.

Training for professionals and service providers in a variety of disciplines is necessary to implement an effective response. These professionals include health service professionals (physicians, emergency room staff, public health nurses, paramedics, nurses and home care staff), members of the legal community, mediators, court assessors, conciliators, lawyers, mental health professionals, social workers, income assistance staff, child protection workers, educators and school personnel, in addition to criminal justice system personnel. A comprehensive, co-ordinated continuum of services must be available to provide an effective response.

iii. Challenges

The key challenge for jurisdictions is to determine how the varied needs of these families can be met in a supportive, consistent, co-ordinated, timely and effective fashion. Additional services and ways of reaching the majority of abused women who do not currently use shelters and outreach services need to be explored. It is essential that continued efforts be made to remove barriers preventing women from using needed services. It is also critical to meet the needs of women from diverse communities and from isolated or rural communities.

Abused women may access service from a variety of entry points in addition to police and shelters, such as emergency rooms, family physicians, income security programs and family courts. These services need to be equipped to respond sensitively and effectively, providing information and referral to specialized counselling and services that meet these women’s needs.

People providing shelter services to abused women may not see their objectives as congruent with those of the justice system. In view of the negative reaction of some victims to their experience with the justice system, advocates working within shelters may not encourage women to participate in the justice process as witnesses. In some jurisdictions, shelter directors complain that they have not been consulted by the criminal justice system. This tension between these agencies and the criminal justice system is perhaps a manifestation and natural extension of the tension that exists between victims and the justice system, borne partly out of historical response and partly out of the sometimes conflicting objectives of victims and the justice system. Efforts must be made to co-ordinate responses and to work together to build partnerships at interagency levels in order to share perspectives and ownership of the problem. Identifying ways in which communities and systems can strengthen their response to provide an effective, co-ordinated and comprehensive array of services to victims and their families is essential.

iv. Recommendations

It is recommended that jurisdictions explore ways to ensure the provision of a continuum of accessible, comprehensive and co-ordinated community-based and government services to victims and their families, including both shelter and outreach services. Training for criminal justice professionals and service providers in a variety of disciplines serving abused women and their children is necessary to strengthen working relationships, to understand differing objectives and to implement an effective response.


The 1999 GSS revealed that approximately half a million children in Canada had heard or witnessed a parent being assaulted during the previous five years.[154] Data provided in section I of this Report indicate that many children repeatedly witness abuse of a parent, usually their mother, and that many are negatively affected by this exposure to violence. Research indicates that police, criminal justice and family law systems are involved in or aware of the exposure of children to violence in the home. Also, evidence suggests that children are harmed not only by their exposure to family violence but as direct recipients of threats and abuse themselves. It has been estimated that the extent of overlap between woman abuse and child physical or sexual abuse is approximately 30 to 60 percent.[155]

In the research literature from the past two decades, evidence of the negative impact of domestic violence on behavioural development is unequivocal.[156] In recent years, increasing attention has been focused on the impact of high-conflict divorce on children who have been exposed to adult domestic violence.[157]

While it is clear that this is an under-researched area, the types of interventions that have been tried with children include individual and group counselling, centres that provide facilitated (access exchange) or supervised access, and programs for children of parents who are divorcing or separating, as well as programs for these parents themselves.

The Department of Justice Canada commissioned an extensive meta-analysis in 1998 of the various intervention models then in existence. A summary report identified key justice-related policy considerations including the following:

i. Cross-jurisdictional Overview of Programs for Children Exposed to Family Violence

Although significantly under-funded to date, these programs are receiving increasing recognition as a key prevention and recidivism reduction measure. Some jurisdictions have begun to invest heavily in this area, providing counselling, either individually or in group format or both, to children to help them overcome the trauma of exposure to violence in the home and to stop the intergenerational transfer of abusive behaviour. Complementary support programs are also provided for mothers who have been abused to teach parenting skills and techniques of coping with their children’s behaviour.

Saskatchewan offers four programs for mothers and children exposed to family violence. Manitoba offers short- and long-term counselling for children who witness violence at home. Calgary has a number of services for children and youth who have either been exposed to domestic violence or who are themselves exhibiting aggressive behaviours at home or school. These community-based services are available to families using the services of the Domestic Violence Court. Ontario offers the Early Intervention Program for Child Witnesses of Domestic Violence. There are approximately 131 support groups within the program throughout the province. The program is based on the concurrent group model, where children, aged 4 to 16, are supported as they begin to recover from the effects of witnessing woman abuse while mothers are supported as they help their children recover from the effects of violence. British Columbia also offers individual and group counselling for children exposed to violence in the home.

Facilitated or third-party access is required for some families to protect abused mothers from exposure to re-assault. Supervised access is required where there is a concern about the parenting ability or capacity of an abuser or where there is risk of harm to the children. Parent education may also help these families to avoid placing their children in the middle of disputes following separation or divorce. These relationships are often characterized as particularly high conflict with potential for violence and merit particular attention and priority for action.

Jurisdictions noted above have invested in programs to support children exposed to domestic violence but this remains an under-serviced area in many jurisdictions.

Child Welfare Involvement

Child welfare legislation in some jurisdictions contains specific clauses that recognize exposure to domestic violence as a potential reason for a child being deemed in need of protective services. Jurisdictions with such clauses include Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Northwest Territories has also introduced similar amendments to its legislation.

Protocols specific to the reporting of children exposed to domestic violence exist in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta. While protocols on child protection, transition houses and abusive partner interventions do exist, they may not be current and practice is inconsistent. There is evidence of a lack of reciprocal reporting between police and child protection agencies. More work must be done to ensure a consistent response, including joint training.

ii. Elements of an Effective Response

While additional research is needed, a number of programs for children exposed to family violence hold promise, such as group and individual counselling for children and youth to help them recover from trauma and learn new, non-violent conflict resolution skills. A complementary program helps non-violent parents understand the impact of the violence on their children, and provides coping methods and parenting techniques that support what the children are learning, as well as safety planning information. Such interventions provide a significant opportunity to reduce domestic violence by preventing the intergenerational transfer of violent behaviour.

Evidence suggests programs that provide facilitated (access exchange) or supervised access, programs for children of parents who are divorcing or separating, programs to help parents address separation and loss issues, and parenting skills programs for spousal abusers, are important in enhancing protection for victims and children.

While this area requires further research, the following are suggested as key elements of an effective response to children exposed to domestic violence:

iii. Challenges

The challenge to jurisdictions is to determine the most effective means of promoting a co-ordinated approach to services for children exposed to violence in the home, involving legal, mental health, educational, medical and social service resources. Jurisdictions must also grapple with the following issues.

There is a need to move toward building long-term supports for troubled families within the community. Family group decision making is a model that holds some promise.[159] Further research is required to determine the circumstances in which such an approach can be adopted, with appropriate safeguards for all participants.

The negative impact of spousal/partner violence on children is an issue with significant implications for family law reform. The issue is being considered by the Co-ordinating Committee of Senior Officials—Family Justice.

iv. Recommendations

It is recommended that jurisdictions develop, with community, justice and other government partners, a co-ordinated response to children exposed to domestic violence, based on the key elements of an effective response outlined above. Supported by services, a co-ordinated policy and procedure framework should be developed that holds the offender accountable, provides support to enable parents to protect their children, and does not re-victimize abused women and their children.


Intervention programs for men who assault their partners[160] were initiated during the late 1970s, initially as educational groups promoting anti-sexist beliefs and subsequently incorporating cognitive and behavioural therapeutic techniques.[161] Group treatment became a popular sanction of the courts in the wake of pro-arrest legislation of the 1980s in the United States. Intervention programs for men may be required as part of a pre-trial diversion program, or imposed as part of a sentence or as a condition of probation.

Groups for abusive partners often employ a mixture of theoretical approaches, although most are based on a feminist model developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota,[162] which asserts that male violence is part of a spectrum of efforts to control women. Program length may vary from as little as one day to 32 weeks, but most often, programs last approximately 16 weeks.[163] Some programs are open-ended and unstructured with new members joining established groups, while others do not permit continuous program entry.

Intervention programs have rarely been subjected to rigorous scientific investigation. Moreover, research on the impact of abusive partners’ intervention programs on recidivism has produced conflicting results. There is little evidence that one form of intervention is more successful than others or that longer programs are more effective.[164] However, although empirical evidence is highly limited, there is some basis for hypothesizing that some batterers may fare better in treatment (or fare better in certain types of treatment) than others. There is evidence that violence toward intimates is harder to treat in abusers with longer and more serious histories of violence toward intimates, longer criminal records of violence toward strangers and traumatic violence exposure as children.[165] It is important to recognize that intervention programs may be more effective for some abusers than others (and, in fact, may be totally ineffective or harmful for some perpetrators).

A recent Canadian study[166] found that variations in program content resulted in little difference in recidivism rates. The study examined four programs in different regions of Canada that operated with different models (cognitive/behavioural, humanistic/existential, feminist/psycho-educational and eclectic). The programs selected for study were intended to represent those typically available in Canada, not to be considered exemplary. Program integrity, rather than content or philosophy, was considered to have an impact on recidivism rates, although the effect was only marginally significant. The authors conclude that the essential elements of effective intervention remain unknown.

Program attrition is a significant factor in considering the efficacy of abusive partner intervention programs. Typically, more than half of all participants assigned to treatment do not finish the program.[167] A research project funded by the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada[168] found that abusers with an unstable lifestyle (for example, unemployed people, people with low levels of education, or low income, or people who changed addresses frequently) and who did not believe the intervention program addressed their particular problems were most likely to fail to complete the program. The single strongest predictor of completion was self-identification of the need for treatment. The study questions the wisdom of the growing trend to make abusive partner intervention programs part of the conditions of probation for all abusers who assault their partners, without paying attention to an assessment of the likelihood that individuals will complete or benefit from a particular program.

In the United States, male batterers are frequently diverted.[169] Post-arrest, pre-trial diversion programs are available in a number of states, generally for defendants with no criminal record. Court-ordered counselling is initiated after criminal charges have been filed but before conviction. On successful completion of the treatment program, charges are dropped. The advantage of these diversion-to-treatment programs is that individuals can be referred and screened into the programs very quickly (often in less than a week). Moreover, the incentive to comply with program conditions is significant as charges are dropped if the abuser completes the program. The disadvantage is that abusive partners may choose to participate in order to avoid criminal sanctions.

i. Cross-Canada Overview of Abusive Partner Intervention Programs

Abusive partner intervention and treatment programs are offered in most Canadian jurisdictions.[170] All programs offer group counselling, sometimes supplemented by individual counselling and a specialized curriculum generally based on the dynamics of power and control. Many provide complementary counselling for, or frequent contact with, partners of the abusive spouse. Some programs are offered by justice ministries; others are provided by departments of health or social services, or by private agencies funded by government.

Alberta has a proposal for a treatment framework that will see expansion and funding based on compliance with standards.

In Quebec, the report of the coroner’s inquest into the Gaumont-Lirette murder-suicide recommended the establishment of a hot-line for male batterers, which would be available 24 hours a day and which would provide support and advice to men in crisis situations who are at risk of perpetrating violence against their partner. This service has not yet been established. In the Act Respecting the Québec Correctional System, which the Correctional Services of Quebec will implement, spousal violence offenders will be able to begin to address issues related to their offending behaviour within the correctional context, before receiving therapy. In this respect, Correctional Services of Quebec will be able to enter into agreements designed to give offenders access to specialized therapeutic treatment.

Manitoba also funds a men’s centre in Winnipeg as well as couple counselling[171] under very stringent and selective criteria. Conjoint interventions are controversial and few evaluations exist of their effectiveness. Central to the debate are concerns about safety and about minimizing risk to the female partner. Interventions are generally conducted under stringent guidelines, when the violence has stopped, the perpetrator has accepted responsibility for the violence, the partners wish to work on improving their relationship and there is a commitment to non-violence.

Ontario is expanding the number of Partner Assault Response programs as part of its Domestic Violence Justice Strategy and specialized court approach. Indeed, this expansion is an integral element in the model. Programs exist in approximately one third of the court jurisdictions in Ontario now. Once the justice strategy is complete, all 54 areas will have programs. Offenders pay a portion of the cost to promote accountability and responsibility, but this is done on an “ability to pay” basis.

In the post-plea referral program, selected offenders who plead guilty and successfully complete a treatment program are given a conditional sentence. This program is unlike those American diversion programs described above, in that prosecution is not deferred and charges are not dropped. Completion rates were higher in the Ontario early intervention programs than in the post-sentence court-ordered programs, although it is not known whether this difference is due to the characteristics of the offender or to the accountability associated with the final court date.[172]

In Yukon, the Assaultive Husbands Treatment program is offered to selected offenders who enter a guilty plea. Offenders are brought before the judge monthly so that progress can be monitored. Sentencing is deferred for up to a year. A women’s program is offered by the same agency that provides the men’s program. A man who wishes to have a no-contact order lifted must present a safety plan for his family to the court.

ii. Elements of an Effective Response

While more research is needed in the face of contradictory results to date, the key elements of an effective response appear to be as follows:

iii. Challenges

A key issue is whether the justice system should promote the use of abusive partner intervention programs, in the absence of persuasive evidence of their effectiveness.

Questions remain about program admission criteria and the implications for denial of admission; the stage in the justice process at which perpetrators should be referred; the type of offender supervision that should be provided during participation in the treatment program, and who should be responsible; the mechanisms that should be established to ensure victim safety; and access to programs in rural and remote communities.

The definition of “success” is also in dispute. Is a reduction in the number or severity of violent incidents sufficient, or must there be absolute cessation? Over what time period must this reduction or cessation be sustained to be considered successful? Is replacement of physically abusive acts with psychologically abusive acts still an indicator of success? Recognizing that in some cases, the offender’s motive is to avoid charges rather than to change behaviour, should we require simply program completion or evidence of behaviour change?

Encouraging assaultive partners to adopt non-violent responses to conflict is obviously a key element of a successful strategy to address domestic violence. Jurisdictions must continue to evaluate their current programs, building on the evidence of best practices to deliver programs to reduce recidivism, increase offender accountability and help victims who intend to keep living with the perpetrator.

iv. Recommendations

It is recommended that jurisdictions continue to develop programs for abusive partners and that these programs reflect evidence-based practice. They must support rigorous research and evaluation to help them determine the elements of an effective response.


i. Research and Best Practices

In addition to improving existing services, and exploring new initiatives and co-ordinated efforts to increase the safety of women assaulted by their intimate partners, women’s activists, researchers, and public policymakers have tried to improve their understanding of their ability to assess risk related to both re-offending and lethality or dangerousness.

The science of predicting domestic violence is in its infancy. Data on the reliability, validity and predictive accuracy of risk assessment tools are so scarce[173] as to be “practically non-existent.”[174] As few empirical studies have sought to distinguish risk markers, it is not possible to identify with certainty a particular set of characteristics that may be used to determine whether individuals are at risk of perpetrating or becoming victims of domestic violence.[175] Despite every effort based on knowledge to date, there is no way to guarantee safety for victims of spousal/intimate partner violence.

However, a number of factors have been identified as correlates of risk for perpetration of domestic violence[176] and for domestic violence victimization.[177]

While there are similarities or overlap between the risk factors for repeat violence and those for lethal violence, they are not identical.[178] Practitioners should be aware of this distinction when choosing assessment tools.[179] Jacquelyn Campbell has identified nine homicide risk factors that a majority of domestic violence experts have recognized: access to or ownership of guns, use of weapons in prior abusive incidents, threats with weapons, serious injury in prior abusive incidents, threats of suicide, threats to kill, drug or alcohol abuse, forced sex with the female partner and obsessive behaviour (such as extreme jealousy or dominance).[180] Campbell’s Danger Assessment Instrument [181] has been widely tested and forms the basis for many of the informal assessment methods currently used.[182] A risk assessment and management tool and strategy developed by Randall Kropp and others at the British Columbia Institute Against Family Violence, the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment Guide (SARA),[183] refers to both lethal and non-lethal violence. The SARA is a clinical checklist of risk factors identified in the research literature. It is intended to be an accessible tool for a full range of professionals, and contains what the authors consider a basic set of factors that should be considered when assessing risk.[184]

Some of the cautions associated with the use of lethality assessment tools are summarized as follows:

Similarly, cautions are noted regarding the use of risk assessment tools adapted for use at different stages of the justice system, to evaluate the likelihood of repeated violence. For example, assessments are only relevant for a specific period of time, and decisions based on their results need to be re-evaluated later in the justice process. Further, service providers should remember that violence can occur even in the absence of identified risk markers.[186]

Despite these difficulties, and though empirical studies are few, there is early evidence to suggest that risk assessments used in safety planning for victims of intimate partner violence may provide additional insights, help victims adopt new safety measures, or help parties match safety planning to specific dangers. Use of assessment tools in relation to repeated or escalating violence may encourage co-ordination among multiple service providers,[187] expose justice officials to issues they might not otherwise consider and provide a “touchstone” for victims themselves, a lens through which they can see their situation.[188]

Factors assessing the likelihood that violence will be repeated or escalate have been incorporated into a variety of risk assessment tools currently in use in North America among police, victim services, Crown Prosecutors and correctional services. Instruments are used at all points in the justice system, but they are most commonly used to guide decisions involving probation, treatment and incarceration. Although risk assessment is used in some locations to inform decisions regarding judicial interim release, the use of such tools is compromised by lack of time and opportunity. Efforts are made to identify high-risk abusers in order to assess and manage threats to victims and to allocate scarce probation supervision and treatment resources. As more offenders have been charged and received probation sentences, this group of offenders has come to comprise the single largest group on probation.

British Columbia is using the SARA checklist, which has been adapted for Crown use. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have also initiated training on the use of this tool.

Forensic Assessment Services does risk assessment for the Calgary Domestic Violence Court. As well, Alberta uses a “risk factoring tool” when making decisions at bail. As part of Ontario’s Domestic Violence Justice Strategy, police will be collecting data using a Domestic Violence Supplementary Report Form (DVSR), which includes a risk assessment component. A guide to completing the form includes information on the value of a sworn videotaped statement, and the process for obtaining one; a rationale for the risk assessment tool and the process for soliciting information; and information on a safety plan for the victim and children. Information collected is critical and will be used at various stages of the justice process by police, Crown Prosecutors, and Victim Witness Assistance Program staff.

A federally funded contract has been awarded to Randall Kropp to develop a revised risk assessment tool, based on earlier work on theSARA and to pilot it in three sites. The tool is intended to help criminal justice professionals assess the risk that the offender will re-offend after release (for example, on bail or post-sentence) and determine appropriate responses. It is anticipated thetool will include a checklist and interview guide for use with victims.

ii. Elements of an Effective Response

While further research is being conducted on the tools, it is too early to speak to their utility or effectiveness in decision making.

iii. Challenges

These tools hold promise for identifying those most apt to cause serious harm and thus provide an opportunity to intervene through, for example, arrest, detention in custody, sentencing conditions, release decision making and development of safety plans for the victim. However, it is important to apply these tools cautiously. Strong evidence does not yet exist that these tools clearly predict future behaviour. It is uncertain whether results are sufficient to distinguish among those abusers who pose a serious threat of lethal assault, those who are likely to cause harm but not lethal harm, and those not likely to cause harm.

Jurisdictions must be mindful of the limitations of these tools, particularly when offering guidelines for intervention based on the application of these tools. These cautions should be communicated in any training provided on the use of the tools. Their value may lie mainly in increasing awareness of the behaviour of abusive partners, possibly resulting in increased vigilance in monitoring these offenders and the more cautious release decisions.

iv. Recommendations

It is recommended that the use of validated risk assessment tools be recognized as important to assist decision making at various stages of the justice system. It is recommended that the use of risk assessment tools be further explored by jurisdictions, and that necessary caution be exercised when offering guidelines for intervention based on the results of their use. Any related training should communicate the limitations associated with risk assessment tools.


Auditing, monitoring and accountability mechanisms allow jurisdictions to assess the effectiveness of strategies and to ensure compliance.[189] To track the progress of cases through the justice system and to assess the impact of program and process changes on an ongoing basis, a jurisdiction needs an integrated information system. The capacity of jurisdictions to track cases from the point of a call to police through sentence completion is severely limited as, for the most part, justice information systems do not link components (police, the Crown and correctional services). Jurisdictions have relied on periodic special studies to assess justice performance.

Virtually all public inquiries, coroner’s inquests and government investigations into incidents of spousal/partner homicide have decried the lack of comprehensive information regarding the justice system’s response to incidents of family violence and have recommended the development of integrated information systems. The cost of and specialized expertise required for information systems development no doubt are major factors responsible for the relatively slow development in this area, as are ongoing operational expenditures to maintain such systems.

The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics at Statistics Canada is currently assessing the feasibility of linking police, courts and corrections data in order to address questions related to sentencing patterns and recidivism among spousal violence perpetrators. Most court systems, except specialized domestic violence courts, do not identify the sex of the victims or the relationship between the victims and the accused. This information is critical for identifying spousal violence cases since there is no specific Criminal Code offence of “spousal violence.” Police statistics do identify these characteristics of the victims and the accused, so linking police and courts data will provide much needed information concerning the processing and treatment of these cases at various stages of the criminal justice system. Results of the feasibility work are expected within two to three years.

Data are available on certain aspects of domestic violence legislation where it has been enacted; Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Yukon and Alberta have each produced evaluation reports on their legislation. Nova Scotia undertook the most comprehensive tracking study to date and built a prototype information system to collect data on an ongoing basis, which was not implemented due to fiscal restraint. New Brunswick built a system based on aggregate data on family violence cases, which it continues to enhance. Manitoba tracked domestic violence cases in three police sites in the early 1990s and has produced evaluations of the Winnipeg Family Violence Court and related reports. Ontario recently published an evaluation of the operation of its domestic violence courts. Saskatchewan is planning to undertake a tracking study of its domestic violence cases handled in criminal court. Quebec produces annual reports from policing data. Yukon has produced a report on spousal assault and mandatory charging. RCMP data capture spousal assaults, but not the full range of spousal violence offences.[190]

Audit mechanisms are key to determining justice professionals’ level of compliance with pro-charge, pro-prosecution policies. Although tracking studies conducted in recent years have demonstrated an increase in police charge rates, there is still evidence that police in some areas advise victims to apply for a peace bond, despite the existence of evidence to support a charge. By assessing staff performance according to the degree to which staff members comply with the policies, senior managers of criminal justice agencies convey the importance of the policies.

i. Elements of an Effective Response

Data collection should be ongoing and supplemented by periodic research studies into specific areas of inquiry. Ad hoc, one-time studies do not provide sufficient information for good policy development and program management. Jurisdictions must collect data over time so they can analyze trends, detect deviations from expected performance, and make the necessary changes in policies, practices, procedures or other areas. Performance measurement is an ongoing function of good governance. Data should inform public policy and practice.

Within each component of the justice system, managers must ensure compliance with policies and procedures by making compliance assessment an integral part of performance management.

Elements of an effective response include the following:

ii. Challenges

Accountability mechanisms, and particularly monitoring and tracking systems, are compromised by the lack of an integrated justice information network, resource constraints and the limitations of current technology.

Monitoring, tracking and obtaining statistics on spousal abuse are difficult because the relationship between victim and offender, rather than a specific offence, is the factor that distinguishes them from other cases.

iii. Recommendations

It is recommended that jurisdictions develop or enhance accountability mechanisms for monitoring justice system performance in family violence cases, to support sound executive decision making and measure the impact of new initiatives. It is recommended that jurisdictions support the development of information systems, based on the collection of common key performance indicators, to enable evaluation of justice system performance. The development of common methodologies for examining programs is also recommended (for example, when evaluating abusive partner intervention programs) to facilitate knowledge exchange and advancement.


All Canadian jurisdictions have mounted training initiatives with the objective of improving the response of the justice system to incidents of domestic violence.[191] Specific training programs have accompanied the introduction of new provincial and territorial policies or protocols; new domestic violence legislation; or new structures, such as specialized domestic violence courts.

Most jurisdictions have developed excellent training materials, which emphasize teamwork involving multi-disciplinary partners; the dynamics of domestic violence; elements of the legislation, policies and protocols; the roles of the various criminal justice agencies; and the primacy of victim safety.

In Saskatchewan, two evaluation reports on the implementation of domestic violence legislation in that province identified the need for more training. Saskatchewan has addressed the need for training sustainability by creating a position to develop and deliver training in family violence and the domestic violence legislation. By using a train-the-trainer approach, the province hopes to create a repository of expertise at the regional level.

In Prince Edward Island, training is ongoing with the support of existing resources such as the family violence co-ordinator. A new training package has been developed for police, in response to concerns identified in the evaluation of the provincial domestic violence legislation. However, the province indicates it is difficult to sustain the training initiative with existing resources.

Nova Scotia provided mandatory training for all 3000 justice system employees—police, court staff, Crown Prosecutors, corrections staff, and victim services staff—as part of the implementation of the government’s Framework for Action Against Family Violence in 1996. This training was delivered using a train-the-trainer approach where selected police, Crown Prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals were trained to deliver the material to their peers. Community agencies were also involved in the delivery of training. A review of the Framework for Action, conducted by Dean Russell of the Dalhousie Law School, expressed concern that the training effort had not been sustained. As a result, the Justice Learning Centre was established by the Department of Justice, in partnership with Nova Scotia Community College, and subsequent training for all justice professionals is scheduled to begin in early 2003.

New Brunswick undertook a significant training effort with the introduction of its Woman Abuse Protocols in 1991. The Muriel McQueen Ferguson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, does offer a certificate program in family violence. In 2001, the government announced it would revise the protocols by 2003 and subsequently deliver new training. The Government of New Brunswick is committed to revising the existing protocols (women abuse and child abuse protocols), as well as announcing a refreshed training strategy in 2003.

In Quebec, pre-service training in domestic violence is provided to all police at the provincial police college. A training course is provided to Crown Prosecutors every 18 months. Quebec will accompany its new sexual assault policy with training. Correctional Services of Quebec offers specialized training in the dynamics of spousal violence for corrections officials. A program has also been established for corrections officials related to dealing with women who are victims of spousal violence. In addition, local communities also provide training opportunities.

In Ontario, new Crown Prosecutors and those who wish to be designated domestic violence specialists must take a one-week summer course on domestic violence. A new ministry-certified Ontario Provincial Police College domestic violence course for special investigators is now offered, and new probation staff to be hired as part of the Domestic Violence Justice Strategy will receive special training.

Manitoba has provided training regarding the implementation of its provincial domestic violence legislation and for Winnipeg police officers. Similarly, Alberta conducted a mass training effort to prepare for its Protection Against Family Violence Act. British Columbia conducted training to coincide with its Violence Against Women in Relationships Policy. The RCMP in that province provides training in relationship violence and the criminal harassment policy to every officer. A training program is available for Crown Prosecutors and support staff. A new program in risk assessment is being developed for police and victim service workers.

i. Elements of an Effective Response

A recent review of provincial and territorial domestic violence legislation and implementation strategies identified some important aspects of successful training initiatives:[192]

Evaluation data indicates that training, as a component of an integrated strategy, has had a positive impact on criminal justice system performance.[193]

The following best practices have been identified:[194]

ii. Challenges

Ongoing training of all justice workers is essential, because of the high turnover of staff and declining policy compliance in the absence of refresher training. Resource issues and the absence of a focal point of responsibility for ensuring training delivery affect the ability of jurisdictions to sustain training initiatives.

iii. Recommendations

It is recommended that each jurisdiction develop and implement a plan for the development and ongoing delivery of cross-sectoral training to new and existing staff dealing with family violence issues within the criminal justice system.

This training should be based on the critical success factors identified above, to ensure an effective response to family violence. It is suggested that jurisdictions share training resources to avoid duplication of effort and to minimize the burden of developing course material. The work of the National Judicial Institute should be supported to ensure that the judiciary continues to receive education regarding the dynamics of spousal/partner violence and the impact of the criminal justice response.


While many of the aforementioned strategies may influence recidivism by deterring perpetrators and supporting victims once the abuse has occurred, the preferred strategy should be one of preventing abuse before it occurs. Prevention can be conceptualized as a continuum: preventing abuse from happening in the first place; intervening in a crisis to prevent continuance of abuse; and treatment or rehabilitation to prevent recurrence of abusive behaviour. Broad-based strategies that target the general public (such as public education and social marketing to change individual and collective tolerance for abusive behaviour) and strategies that focus on high-risk groups are components of a holistic prevention strategy.

i. Elements of an Effective Response

An effective preventive strategy must address all stages of the continuum of family violence and include the following:

ii. Challenges

Notwithstanding the deterrent and rehabilitative impact of criminal justice interventions, prevention of spousal or partner violence lies largely outside the scope of the criminal justice system. Prevention efforts are multi-dimensional in nature involving many players and systems and influencing behaviour at many levels over time. Resources must be committed elsewhere to have an impact on the justice system, and for the most part this impact is not immediate. Because systems are absorbed in responding to current crises, it is often difficult to redirect resources into prevention.

iii. Recommendations

It is recommended that resources at the government, corporate and community levels be committed to broad-based prevention activities, as identified in the key elements of an effective response identified above.