Dear Domestic Violence Advocate,
Thank-you for the work you do and the daily compassion you show domestic violence victims. I write hoping to demystify a Family Lawyer’s role in the divorce and separation of domestic violence victims as well as offer my wishes about “safety plans”.
A Lawyer’s role in divorces and separations (especially where domestic violence exists) can encourage and empower or it can perpetuate fears and disappointments. You are probably thinking “you are preaching to the choir, sister”.
So why not pick a lawyer who encourages and empowers off the bat? Many times, I hear Advocates say “thank goodness you get it”. You can choose a lawyer (“who gets it”) provided you know what to look for.
Much like courtship rituals such as dating and what kids (these days) call…”hanging out”, a solicitor-client relationship unfolds as you and your client spend time with the lawyer.
Provided you and your client’s expectations are “reasonable within the confines of the law” but your lawyer does not return phone calls on time, drafts sparse Court documents or worse yet, inaccurate Court documents and cannot move the legal proceeding forward (even an inch) in three (3) months…it’s time to “break up” with your lawyer.
An ineffective lawyer, (much like a potential suitor who can never seem show up on time or call when promised, and never really shows consistent interest), will not go anywhere with your client’s goals and will not result in a resolution for your client.
But much like the words of a forlorn teenager in love, I am frequently asked “but how will I know”? Perhaps unbeknownst to the general public, a good lawyer has several “tells”:
a) The good lawyer reads documents you provide and writes information down during meetings. You will feel the lawyer understands your client’s relationship history and the general timelines of significant events (like neglect or abuse incidents, criminal charges/convictions, when your client asked for financial support or moved out of the joint residence, and what witnesses can give supporting evidence etc.) because the good lawyer will ask questions and direct what information is needed for Court. The lawyer’s questions will make sense and shows an understanding of your client’s facts.
If the lawyer cannot get the basic facts of your client’s life….Call that relationship quits.
Worse yet, the lawyer will be unable to explain the circumstances in Court and this will reflect in the Court’s decision. So how long before you will know? Immediately within the first two (2) to three (3) meetings with the lawyer.
b) The good lawyer will manage your expectations and your client’s expectations by telling you, clearly, what the law is. If the law is unsettled or confusing, the good lawyer will ask you to read some case law and discuss what the case law means at your meetings. The good lawyer will not over promise and under deliver. The good lawyer will also point out facts that may hinder your client’s case and will suggest ways to address these facts. How long before this shows up in your relationship with the lawyer… immediately within the first two (2) meetings and should continue each meeting until your client’s matter is resolved or concluded.
c) The good lawyer will ask you and your client what records or documents exist to show past domestic violence, abuse or neglect or can support your client’s statements. The good lawyer can explain what records may be kept by community agencies such as Children’s Services or the Police/RCMP. The good lawyer will know how to legally obtain these records (in addition to suggesting a FOIPP application to you and your client). If the lawyer cannot explain what records exist or how to obtain copies of these records…then you are in trouble and need to find a new lawyer. When will this “tell” show up? It should appear in advance of the lawyer drafting Court documents and in preparation for a Court application where these records may be needed.
d) The good lawyer is competent when drafting Court documents. I said “competent” not “perfect”. Competent drafting involves correction of factual errors or typographical errors; good grammar and spelling; good sentence structure; concise reference to the facts and attaching relevant and material documents or records as exhibits to your client’s Affidavit or other such document. The good lawyer also provides the Court documents in “draft form” so you and your client can review it and suggest changes or additions.
Be prepared as sometimes you and your client’s feedback may be needed quickly because a Court application is urgent. Remember I said “competent” not “perfect”. Within three (3) months of the lawyer opening your client’s file, the lawyer should be able to get an Interim Child Support Court Order or even an Interim Parenting Court Order (provided no odd or extenuating circumstances exist). If not, the litigation may be dragging unnecessarily.
By no means are these the “only tells” of a good lawyer but are the important “tells”.
Now, I would like to share my wishes for safety plan development. Here are my top five (5) wishes:
- Before people start dating, at all. I wish parents would “invest” in a consultation with a good Family Lawyer. So, remember I said these are my “wishes”. This way young people can develop an understanding of what the “law” finds an acceptable suitor is; what is an acceptable relationship and what the legal entitlements look like when we speak about “respectful communication”, “consensual sex”, consensual financial spending, reporting abuse and available community supports. The “Me Too” movement shows that it is never too early to discuss these issues. We need to raise young adults to understand and be aware, not live in guilt or fear. It is learning that relationships are about being respected, loved and that there are standards for this in law.
- If you are in a domestic violence situation, and if it safe to do so, gather or copy as much documentation about finances being pay stubs, income tax returns, notices of assessments, property assessments, bank statements, corporate financial statements, debt statements etc. Keep copies of these documents with a trusted friend or family member. So you are not “hunting” down proof and hoping it still exists, after you leave. It may help a good lawyer prove what you may be entitled to.
- If you are experiencing domestic violence and have made the brave decision to leave your situation, please do not leave your children behind with the abuser if possible. From a lawyer’s perspective, it is difficult to obtain full-time custody of children if you do not leave with them. I am happy to discuss how this can be structured and when in doubt, I am a consultation away by calling (780) 761-1070 or by email to my assistant at email@example.com. Please note there is a fee for this consultation.
- Do not remain silent about your abuse, report to authorities and tell your close friends or family. It is important to make a record of the abuse even if you end up returning to the situation. The Court system requires a history of events and unfortunately, still relies heavily on reporting as a factor in determining the truthfulness of allegations.
- Please setup counseling for your client. As you know, the emotional toll of litigation may be great especially in separation and divorce involving domestic violence. Please choose a counselor that empowers your client and helps your client move forward instead of relive the abuse or dwell on unfairness of it all. I also ask that as an Advocate you do not dwell on how “screwed up the legal system is” and how “unfair some decisions are”.
While these statements can be true, it does not help your client fortify against the rigors of litigation nor does it encourage hope for all those involved. At times, this can make a good lawyer’s work more difficult. It will negatively affect the good lawyer’s ability to represent your client or to work with you as your client’s advocate, if the mindset is focused on defeats and disappointments. Conversations are always harder to have when focused on despair and defeat.
If you find have an ineffective lawyer, then break up with that lawyer and choose a good lawyer. Hopefully, a good lawyer will be easier to spot now.
In closing my many thanks, again, for the work you do. When I was going to University, I worked with the Lurana Shelter which houses women fleeing domestic violence. I am touched that your life’s work is devoted to helping victims of domestic violence leave their situations and that the first time, victims of domestic violence, may learn to speak again is with you.
Ms. Ning Ramos
Author: Ms. Ning Ramos, Barrister and Solicitor
Phone: (780) 761-1070