New restorative justice option launching in Halifax this fall, to the cautious surprise of victim advocates.
By Maggie Rahr
A Halifax court designed specifically to deal with domestic violence will open sooner than planned.
The court, based on a pilot project in Sydney, Cape Breton, appeared set to launch sometime in 2018. But at a recent meeting between provincial justice department bureaucrats and community advocates, it was announced the court will be up and running by September.
“We were all surprised to hear that timeline,” says Becky Kent, provincial coordinator for the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS), who was at the meeting.
In May, former justice minister Diana Whelan—who oversaw the pilot project—said the new court should be open “hopefully, within a year.”
It appears the province is now fast-tracking the launch. A move which has some advocates, like Kent, concerned.
“We really want the department to take seriously efforts to improve the gaps that were identified in the Sydney court.”
The government, for its part, refused requests to interview someone with the department of justice about the launch, or the court itself.
“The anticipated launch date of the Domestic Violence Court is late fall 2017 and that hasn’t changed,” a spokesperson writes to The Coast.
The court is based on a restorative justice model that gives victims the choice of whether to take their case through the domestic violence court. In order for the case to proceed through the DVC at all, the alleged abuser must consent to treatment and admit guilt.
Kent says the process can be complex and, for some, frightening. A core concept is bringing victims and abusers face-to-face in conversation. Women who find themselves in the justice system are often excluded, and voiceless. The new court aims to address this by directly involving those parties.
But the project has raised concerns from advocates working directly with victims in shelters, transition houses and in-treatment programs. Helen Morrison works for the Cape Breton chapter of THANS. She says there’s an air of confusion for DVC participants around what is supposed to be a clear and well-meaning process.
One initiative the province asked Morrison to lead involved group therapy for women who had been assaulted. But it sent the wrong message.
“One of them said, ‘I don’t understand why you people think we need a therapeutic group.
I don’t feel like I need therapy. I’m not the one who’s got the problem.’”
Morrison says the therapy ended up failing because it echoed stigma that victims of domestic violence have been facing for generations. “The message that somehow it’s your problem. It’s your fault.”
She believes it was too early in the process to bring the group together that way, especially since the women had no idea what was happening in the men's’ treatment and rehabilitative program.
“Because the women didn’t know anything about [the men’s treatment], they weren’t reacting well,” Morrison says.
It’s common for victims of abuse to continue a relationship with their abusers post-attack or even after entering the court system. Often, there are children involved, and the women rely on their abusers to keep the lights on and food on the table. Being charged or going to jail isn’t always seen as a solution.
Tod Augusta-Scott runs one of the only centres in Nova Scotia to provide treatment for men who have been abusers. He’s been working with the province in a consulting role on improving justice for victims and offenders of domestic violence in Nova Scotia since the 1980s.
Success in launching the expanded DVC, he says, is dependent on continued, open communication between the justice department and experts at the ground level who are keen to provide feedback.
“We want it to be responsive to individuals in the community,” he says, “We want it to be something that can be renewed.”
Still, Augusta-Scott doesn’t believe launching the court in September will negatively impact outcomes.
“They want to put something in place that they know is imperfect—anything will be,” he admits. “They’re committed to working on it.”