Toronto Star

May. 3, 01:01 EDT

Legal aid clinic to continue controversial no-abuser rule

Policy denies aid to men accused of domestic assault

Tracey Tyler
The Toronto Star

'They should be is a gender thing and illegal discrimination.' Disregarding the presumption of innocence in `a politically incorrect category of cases (is) unacceptable in criminal law.'

A legal aid clinic that gets more than $500,000 a year in public funding will continue turning away men charged with domestic assault.

The board of directors at Osgoode Hall law school's community and legal aid services program has voted to uphold its domestic abuse policy, condemned by its leading critic as an anti-democratic ``embarrassment.''

``There was a fairly extensive discussion about the competing interests that were considered by the clinic in making a policy of that nature,'' said clinic director Glenn Stuart, who refused to say whether Tuesday's vote was unanimous.

The controversial policy was introduced 13 years ago to address concerns about a conflict of interest. Proponents argued that because the clinic has a women's division that represents domestic abuse victims, it couldn't also act for accused wife beaters, who might end up sitting across from their alleged victims in the clinic waiting room.

Opponents, however, called the policy an example of political correctness trumping professionalism.

`The work of the women's division is really a manifestation of the commitment we make to assist lower-income women, who are traditionally disadvantaged.'
- Glen Stuart
Director, Osgoode Hall
legal aid clinic

``They should be ashamed,'' said Alan Gold, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association.

Stuart says the clinic will defend women countercharged by their spouses with assault, but in most of those cases the women would already be clients, having come to seek assistance with other things like finding shelter.

``Then it is a gender thing and illegal discrimination,'' Gold contends.

The policy doesn't reflect the values of criminal lawyers and seems designed for defence lawyers in ``Communist China or Stalinist Russia,'' he added.

Disregarding the presumption of innocence in ``a politically incorrect category of cases'' is ``unacceptable in criminal law,'' Gold said.

The law school is situated at York University.

Much of the clinic's funding comes from Legal Aid Ontario, which for the year 2000-01 contributed $517,716 plus a one-time payment of $100,000 in capital funding. Other funding comes from the university itself and the student body.

David McComb, a clinic lawyer who brought a motion to scrap the policy and last month labelled it embarrassing, wasn't saying much after the vote, except to call the decision ``predictable.''

He said he'd put together a ``wide-ranging'' group of defence lawyers, Canadian Bar Association members and even a senator who were ready to address the issue before the board.

He said he'd also lined up a couple of crown attorneys who have concerns about the increasing role victims are playing in prosecutions. ``I was not permitted to call speakers,'' he said.

``I think the board made a decision it was a board matter,'' Stuart explained. \

Before the vote, however, some senior students who head various clinic divisions came to speak to the board and offered ``a range of perspectives,'' he added.

Because of the ``divergent viewpoints,'' Stuart said, the clinic will probably try to produce some educational material for the clinic explaining reasons for the policy.

Beyond practical considerations of avoiding ``face-to-face contact'' between alleged abusers and victims, the policy exists to further some of the broad social policy objectives of all clinics, Stuart said.

For instance, clinics generally act for tenants, not landlords, he said.

``The work of the women's division is really a manifestation of the commitment we make to assist lower-income women, who are traditionally disadvantaged.''

Once that commitment is made, ``we are advancing a set of values in inherent conflict with defending men charged with domestic violence,'' Stuart said.

One reason abused women come to the clinic is because they feel it's a safe place, he added.

That can be undermined, he said, if they don't feel the clinic is making ``advocacy of their interests paramount'' and notice that it's doing work ``on both sides of the street.''

But McComb said one big difference between this policy and others favouring tenants over landlords - or workers over employers - is that it is gender-biased.

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