What is intimate partner violence?
Intimate partner violence (IPV) ranges from emotional abuse, such as name-calling, to repeated physical or sexual assaults and homicide. According to information from Statistics Canada, IPV is recognized as a public health issue that can have far-reaching consequences on not only the victim but also on families, communities and society at large.
Women, young people and those in dating relationships are most likely to suffer this form of violence, StatsCan states, while those legally separated from their spouse were more likely to be killed than those in intact marriages.
A Justice Canada study estimated the cost to Canadians of just one type of IPV, spousal violence, at $7.4 billion in 2009. Most of that figure related to victim costs, such as pain and suffering, counselling expenses and legal fees for divorce, while the next highest costs were borne by third parties (families, employers and social services) and the criminal and civil justice systems (police, courts and correctional services).
Why is it called intimate partner violence?
In 1996 Parliament enacted s. 718.2(a)(ii) of the Criminal Code, recognizing that the existence of an intimate relationship must be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing in assault cases. The Code has only made a few aggravating factors mandatory, thus giving particular significance to a spousal relationship.
In part, that section reads: “A court that imposes a sentence shall also take into consideration … evidence that the offender, in committing the offence, abused the offender’s intimate partner or a member of the victim or the offender’s family.”
Keep in mind that an intimate partner is often a spouse or those in a long-term relationship, although it can also be a one-night stand. There does not have to be a prior relationship.
According to a Department of Justice (DOJ) fact sheet, in 2000 Parliament amended the Code, replacing the word “spouse” with “spouse or common-law partner.” The latter is defined as “a person who is cohabiting with the individual in a conjugal relationship, having so cohabited for a period of at least one year.” This amendment was part of wider omnibus legislation designed to end discrimination against same-sex partners.
According to DOJ documents, the court has been paying attention to the issue of intimate partner violence in the past 30 years, exposing a problem that was once “characterized as something private, within the family and not a legitimate cause for public concern. Courts were often more focused on keeping the family unit intact than on ending the violence.”
Most provinces and territories have implemented justice system responses specific to intimate partner violence to better address the needs of both victims and offenders. These include changes to policing and prosecution protocols and specialized training for police and for Crown counsels.
Research shows that victims of intimate partner violence are at risk of further violence when they leave an abusive relationship, especially if that departure triggers the involvement of the criminal justice system.
How common of a crime is it?
According to a 2019 DOJ document, just over one-quarter of police-reported violent crime fell into the category of IPV in 2016, with more than 93,000 Canadians contacting the police with allegations.
Of those, 79 per cent of victims were women, with young female adults most at risk. From 2006 to 2016, the risk of intimate partner homicide was highest for young female adults between the ages of 25 to 29 years.
In 2016, dating relationships comprised 55 per cent of police-reported IPV cases, while spousal relationships (current or former married or common-law spouses) comprised 44 per cent of these cases.
According to a 2018 StatsCan report, Saskatchewan had the highest rate of IPV among provinces, with 655 victims per 100,000. Manitoba came in second and Alberta third.
A report by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics shows that violent crime rates against young women and girls were highest in northern Saskatchewan, which stood at 13,886 victims per 100,000 population in 2017. Rates in northern Saskatchewan were found to be six times higher than in southern areas of the province, and higher than all three territories, making it arguably the most dangerous place for women in Canada.
Not all victims are female
According to a Calgary Journal story, while Statistics Canada reports that approximately 80 percent of IVP victims in police-reported incidents are women, another report issued by the agency states that men self-report abuse more commonly than females.
The story states the StatsCan report, Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile, found that 4.2 per cent of men self-reported to have been abused by their partners, compared to 3.5 per cent for women.
The story quotes a criminology professor who led a 2019 study examining the discrepancies between the two bodies of information.
“The bulk of crimes within the family are never known to the police. That explains this lack of any consistency between the numbers,” states the professor. “The police data is very limited in a way that it only shows the crime that becomes known to the police.”
The Journal report notes a U.S. university study examined the experiences of 389 American men who had been abused by their partners, and how they felt the justice system treated them. The majority of the men reported not being believed by police.
“When my ex-wife tried to kill me, I went to the police,” one man is quoted as saying. “Instead of helping, they said that I must have done something to provoke her.”
According to the story, several of these men were even taken into custody, even if they had evidence that they were the victim.
“I was viciously attacked in my house, knocked out, concussion, thrown through the front window of my residence. I had my ass kicked and the police arrested me for second-degree assault even though I was not the aggressor,” another man told researchers.
The criminology professor quoted in the story says incidents like these have made men afraid to contact police.
“They are punished for calling for help because they are immediately seen as the perpetrator rather than a victim,” she states. The professor adds that while this study looked at the situations involving men in the United States, they are similar to what Canadian men experience.
A judge denounces IPV by any name
In the Northwest Territories, a man was sentenced to 90-days in jail and a year’s probation after assaulting his girlfriend. The man’s counsel and the Crown attorney agreed to that sentence in a joint submission to the court, even though the judge felt it was not severe enough. Court documents show the judge cited the 2016 Anthony-Cook decision, where the Supreme Court ruled the only thing a court must consider when assessing a joint submission on sentencing should be the “public interest test.”
In the 2020 NWT case, the judgment noted: “Case law from the Northwest Territories is replete with examples of judges stressing the fundamental importance of denunciation and deterrence when imposing sentences on offenders who are violent towards their intimate partners,” he wrote. “In terms of that specific message, the only thing that has changed is the terminology. Whether it is in the context of ‘domestic’ violence, ‘family’ violence or our current terminology, there is no equivocation that it is denunciation and deterrence that are the most important sentencing objectives … the more important principles are that the sentence should be such as to deter other men from similarly conducting themselves toward women who are their wives or partners … and that the sentence should express the community's wish to repudiate such conduct in a society that values the dignity of the individual.”
He added that IPV “continues to be a broad social problem which needs to be addressed by society, by the government, by communities, and by individual citizens. When the courts get involved, the assault, the domestic violence has already occurred. We are dealing with the often messy aftermath. As such, our role remains as it has been, to use sentencing policy to denounce domestic violence in clear terms and to deter the offender and other persons from committing acts of domestic violence.”
In addressing the sentence, he stated: “A paltry 30 days imprisonment … for his serious assault … is significantly short in terms of denouncing his conduct and it lacks any real impact as a deterrent, either specific or general. Even still, I must endorse it as the Anthony-Cook decision precludes my ability to use sentencing policy to denounce intimate partner violence in clear terms in the face of joint submissions of this nature.”
Experienced defence counsel makes a difference
When IPV cases make it to court across Canada, 60 per cent result in a conviction, according to DOJ information, which is slightly lower than the average conviction rate for all crimes. I have helped numerous clients wrongly accused of crimes that fall under the IPV umbrella. If the police have called you for an interview or for questioning, don’t give a statement. First, call me for a free consultation.