FDRIO had the opportunity to interview Mohini Datta-Ray, the Executive Director of the North York Women’s Shelter, and Miriam Roger, who is creating a roster of lawyers who are skilled and experienced to assist in referrals of shelter clients.

FDRIO : We hear that North York Women’s Shelter (NYWS) is putting together a list of lawyers who have experience with intimate partner violence (IPV) and gender-based violence (GBV) cases – why did you decide this was a good approach? 

MD-R: Our recently reopened shelter was designed in response to some of the biggest systemic issues facing survivors of intimate partner violence. This includes both extending GBV-services to survivors in the community through our brand new community collective space, as well as wrap-around services for residents of our emergency shelter. Most survivors we serve have ongoing and often complex overlapping legal issues. It is imperative to have a list of lawyers who are trauma-informed and who understand the particular dynamics of intimate partner violence and the physical, psychological, financial and legal fallout. We needed a roster of lawyers who, politically and professionally, understand and are deeply invested in the dangerous and complex realities faced by survivors. Without this, survivors are at high risk of being doubly victimized – both by the abuse and by the legal system.

MR: This is why we created the Lawyer Roster Form which asks questions about a lawyer’s understanding of the issues that are common for our clients. The hope is that we can have a diverse referral lawyer list who practice in different fields and speak various languages. We want lawyers who accept legal aid and those who don’t to join our list. Their common trait must be that recognize the importance of safety and the ongoing varied effects trauma can have for our clients.

FDRIO: Is there a level of experience you want lawyers to have, before they join the list?

MR: In the application form, we ask lawyers to indicate how many clients they have worked with who have experienced GBV or IPV. We also ask how long they have been practicing law. There is no particular number of years of practice we are looking for but in general, we want the lawyers who are on our list to be confident and competent with our clients.

FDRIO: Are you providing training for the lawyers who want to join the list?

MR: We are planning to provide ongoing support and resources for lawyers who are on our list. On the Lawyer Roster Form, we ask lawyer applicants to indicate what NYWS can do to support them. So far, the two most popular answers are “Access to training, education or sessions which are eligible for CPD hours” and “Being a member of a listserv/forum specifically for lawyers and issues related to IPV & GBV”. We will work with the lawyers on our list to create both of these options in the near future. It is our dream to create a legal community based out of NYWS where we can collaborate and learn from each other. 

MD-R: Lawyers who we’ve spoken to, who do the work of supporting survivors of gender-based violence, have told us that they can and do experience compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. The system that is stacked against survivors of violence is overwhelming, frustrating and tragic and it can feel like just too much even for lawyers.  One aim of this project is to create an environment where lawyers can share resources, strategies and support with each other. Participating lawyers have expressed a keen interest in developing an ongoing network of support and solidarity – which is really exciting!

FDRIO: What other potential legal referral sources have you used for your clients?

MD-R: We often refer clients to survivor-centred and trauma-informed legal clinics in Toronto that we have great working relationships with, including the Downsview Legal Clinic, the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, the South Asian Legal Clinic and Toronto North Family Law Service Centre. There are of course many others doing amazing work.

FDRIO: What do you think are the most important characteristics for lawyers who work with clients who have been victims of coercive/controlling violence?

MD-R: It is very important that lawyers on our list are able to build a trusting lawyer-client relationship which means both understanding the impact of trauma, and being educated on the impact of intimate partner violence on a survivor. Fundamentally, this is a group of lawyers who have taken an interest in doing a deep dive on understanding the impact on survivors of issues such as acquired traumatic brain injury or the ways in which the legal system may disbelieve and retraumatize survivors. These are lawyers who have the critical and survivor-centred skills to understand that child custody battles are often themselves about further coercive control of the survivor by an abusive partner. Lawyers who work with survivors need to also understand how to administer and read the significance of risk assessment and lethality scales. We don’t expect lawyers to be counsellors – our staff do that work. But the lawyers who work with our clients must have an emotional intelligence that will ensure they don’t contribute to the client’s trauma and a political bent to understand that while a survivor’s case might be individual, the reality of her oppression is systemic. 

FDRIO: What other legal initiatives or supports are you currently working on?

MD-R: The cuts to Legal Aid and the impact these cuts will have on survivors are very concerning to us. Many survivors of intimate partner violence are impoverished by the process of leaving the violent relationship and often have also experienced financial abuse. Without a fully funded legal aid system, our clients are at risk of falling through the legal system’s cracks and ending up with no representation at one of the most dangerous and vulnerable points in their lives. 

MR: To this end, we are creating an awareness and advocacy campaign addressing the now permanent 30% reduction in Legal Aid Ontario’s budget. The status quo at Legal Aid before the cuts was hard enough and now with a significantly reduced budget, we have sincere concerns about the ability of women fleeing violence and other vulnerable people to access justice. In fact, Bill 161, The Smarter and Stronger Justice Act has specifically removed the term “access to justice” from the purpose of the Legal Aid Services Act. 

MD-R: We want to let the public know how crucial and life-saving these resources are to women and their lawyers. Without adequate Legal Aid funding, our clients often self-represent which is completely unacceptable given what she has already had to endure, how additionally vulnerable it makes her, and how traumatic this is. We know how important it is to have a functioning legal system for women and their children to be safe and to recover. Please check the NYWS website and follow our social media accounts to learn about us and feel free to email me mohini@nyws.ca for any other information about this or any other of our exciting campaigns/projects. 

MR: And you can contact me at miriam@nyws.ca for any questions related to the Lawyer Referral List and our other legal support initiatives.

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