Toronto Star

Saturday, July 17, 1999

Courts handle domestic abuse in various ways

Michelle Landsberg
The Toronto Star

LEGAL CYNICS call it the ``A & P Court'' - ``amnesia and perjury.'' Every week, in Court Room 209, the designated domestic violence court at Etobicoke's East Mall, it's standing room only as accused batterers overflow the benches, line the walls and fill the corridors. I spent a recent Thursday there and can report that, although the nickname is a little unfair to the court staff doing their valiant best, it has at least a spark of truth.

But here's the rub: Etobicoke has no special funding for its domestic violence court. This is not one of the eight specialized pilot projects set up after The Star's award-winning series on wife assault three years ago. Last week, Toronto's Woman Abuse Council reported optimistically on the hopeful progress of those specialized courts - more about that in a minute - and I found myself in a good position to contrast the two.

Etobicoke's court was organized by Donna Armstrong, head of the crown attorneys' office in the area, with the expert help of Penny McKay of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program. Unfortunately, without special funding, Court Room 209 does not hold trials. It serves mostly as a way station for 60 to 65 accused men every week, who come there to plead guilty (very few) or to ask for an appearance in regular criminal court to set a trial date. Stalling techniques abound, because the longer the delay, the surer the accused are that their victims won't show up to testify. Many plead for more time to get legal aid; others spin elaborate excuses about seasonal work or lawyers' vacations. They're well aware that when they finally bob up in criminal court, among the flotsam of break and enters, car thefts and frauds, they'll probably get off with a scolding.

I watched while jaunty lawyers told their clients in the corridors: ``Just relax; I'll have you walking out of here in an hour.'' I eavesdropped as the accused batterers, so humble and apologetic in court, quietly menaced their wives in the hallways with subtly clenched fists and domineering gestures.

``Don't frustrate me or I'll bust you,'' snarled one beautiful boy in a red and white sweatsuit, lounging on a plastic chair as his (new?) girlfriend wriggled and pouted for attention.

Some of the men strutted about, rolling their shoulders and smirking self-consciously at bystanders. Others sat in gloomy silence, nervously fingering good luck charms. There were Sikhs in turbans, Rastafarians in knitted caps, East European labourers with interpreters, biker types in muscle shirts and ponytails and a sleazy little man in a checked jacket who whispered furtively to me that he was ``an executive'' unfairly victimized by a woman's jealousy.

This court is a half measure, obviously, but it still serves a purpose. By funneling all domestic violence cases through one starting gate, it can single out battered complainants for prompt support from the Victim/Witness team. A woman who gets even minimal reassurance, information and services may stick around to testify - or even move on with her life.

Police and crowns have always griped about the ``vanishing victims,'' women too scared or just too dependent to follow through on the initial complaint.

Each woman who doesn't show up, or who lies on the stand, represents a costly and dangerous failure of the justice system to ensure safety for the victim of the crime.

The United Way of Greater Toronto says 8,000 women and their children go to Toronto shelters every year fleeing violence or family breakdown. The economic and social cost of domestic violence - in medical expenses, foster care, damaged childhood, job absenteeism, police and court services - is huge and half-submerged, a lethal iceberg in our midst.

In contrast to Etobicoke, The Toronto Woman Abuse Council is excited by the success, so far, of the pilot project courts, two of them in Toronto. At one, city hall's K Court, the operating principle is ``vigorous prosecution.'' Crowns come to court with ample objective evidence (you might have thought this was the norm, but it isn't) such as videos of statements given to police, photographs of injuries and 911 tapes, so that there are twice the number of guilty compared with the non-specialized courts.

What happens after that may be more problematic. Most of the guilty are ordered into 17-week batterers' counselling programs. The Woman Abuse Council says they're a success, but admits that no one has interviewed the victims to find out what's really happening.

In a future column, I'll take a closer look at how far we've really come in stopping the violence.



Michele Landsberg's column appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section. Her E-mail address is mlandsb@thestar.ca.

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