Access to Justice and ADR in Rural Communities
Approximately 10% of Ontario’s population lives rurally. It goes without saying that there are clear differences for people who live in the country and small towns compared to those who live in urban areas. These differences extend to those who are dealing with family violence and in fact, can have an impact on how the abuse is experienced and the options available to those who are in abusive relationships.
Key issues for those living rurally who are also dealing with family violence include:
i. Distance/lack of public transportation: it can be difficult for women to access supports and services, or even to just get away from their abuser for a break. Even if a woman has a car, if her partner has installed GPS or checks the odometer, he can monitor her activities away from the home.
ii. Lack of services generally: women often have to travel significant distances to access counselling and other support services for themselves or their children.
iii. Lack of shelters: not every small town or rural community has a shelter, which means women face difficult choices. Going to the shelter might mean leaving behind employment and the support of family and friends. It can also create legal difficulties if she is removing children from their habitual residence.
iv. Lack of anonymity/privacy: it can be challenging to access support without neighbours, friends and family members becoming aware of it. The counsellor may be a friend of the abuser or the investigating police officer may be related to the family.
v. Isolation: with limited transportation options, it is easy for a woman to feel trapped at home and isolated from those who could support and assist her.
vi. Firearms: there are more firearms in rural homes than in homes in urban areas, and guns are used more often in rural domestic homicides than they are in urban domestic homicides.
vii. Limited or unstable internet/cell phone reception: it can be more difficult for women to find information to assist them online, to call organizations for support, or even to talk to family and friends.
viii. Lack of lawyers and mediators: in many parts of rural Ontario, women do not have access to a family law lawyer or a mediator in their community.
ix. Police response time: with fewer and fewer local detachments, police response time to 911 calls can be too slow to be of assistance in emergency situations or outside regular office hours.
x. Limited family court operations: in small and rural communities, family courts may operate on limited hours or only for certain days of the week or month.
While family law is the same for people everywhere in Ontario, its application and usefulness varies depending on where people live.
Here are some examples:
- the requirement that all parties to family court proceedings attend a Mandatory Information Program session at the courthouse may be a prohibitive obligation for a woman who lives a four-hour drive from the closest courthouse;
- having only a few lawyers often means there are fewer who accept legal aid certificates, and fewer who have a background or training in violence against women;
- fewer mediators limits choice and may even mean that the use of ADR is not possible;
- restraining orders – not a guarantee of safety for anyone – are especially difficult to enforce in rural communities where police response time may be longer and where people may move across jurisdictions as part of their daily routines;
- there are fewer sites for supervised access and exchanges of children;
- greater distances can make transporting children for access more difficult, time consuming and expensive;
- telephone contact between children and their access parent may all be long distance, which can create economic barriers for some families
Online mediation may be able to address some of the barriers to accessing service for parties in rural communities, but specialized safety plans need to be put in place. Of course, these suggestions are best practices for working with any couple with a history of abuse, but they are more critical in rural communities for the reasons discussed above.
For instance, the mediator needs to be certain that the two parties are in different locations; and that means more than different rooms of the same house or apartment.
It is also important that the survivor have maximum privacy on the device she is using for the mediation sessions so that the abuser cannot hack into it to hear anything she has said to the mediator out of the abuser’s presence or to see any of her notes related to the family law case.
Ongoing correspondence – whether by email, telephone, text or regular mail – needs to be done in a way that maximizes the survivor’s privacy. Many couples share password information with one another, so the mediator should discuss the importance of changing passwords to all accounts before the mediation process begins. Ideally, the survivor would get a new device that is registered in her name only, although this may not be an option for everyone because of the cost involved. She may want to open a new email account used only for correspondence related to the separation, and ask her lawyer and mediator to not share this new email address.
At the beginning of the mediation process, the mediator and client should set up a code word that the client can use if she needs to terminate the online mediation session for safety reasons. The mediator should also ensure that the client knows how to use the quick escape function on her device and how to erase her online tracks.
For detailed tips about tech safety planning, please see: https://familycourtandbeyond.ca/keep-safe/web-phone-safety/
Mediators should also be conscious of the different realities of rural living when discussing possible resolutions with the parties. Can the two parties continue to live in the same small community in a way that ensures safety for the survivor? If there is no supervised access centre in the area, how can children be exchanged safely? If cell phone service is limited or unreliable, what is an alternate means of communication, especially in the event of an urgent situation with children? Do roles of extended family members need to be clearly defined and/or limited? Do firearms have to be discussed? If the parties share responsibility for the operation of a farm, what arrangements have to be made about the farm’s ongoing operation, especially if there is livestock?
In most instances, survivors will benefit from being connected with specialized services, so mediators should be familiar with these and be able to make a referral. This includes shelters, which offer non-residential as well as residential services, community counselling agencies and the Family Court Support Worker Program. To find the service that operates the Family Court Support Worker Program in communities across Ontario check here.
Pamela Cross is a feminist lawyer; a well-known and respected expert on violence against women and the law for her work as a researcher, writer, educator and trainer. She works with women’s equality and violence against women organizations across Ontario.