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Mandatory Charging Policies and the Criminalization of Intimate-Partner Violence Victims in Canada

July 3, 2024
Eden Hoffer

Eden Hoffer is a PhD student in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University. Her doctoral research focuses on how mothers who are intimate partner violence victim-survivors are re-victimized and/or criminalized by social services/institutions such as the healthcare system, child welfare system, and criminal justice system.

According to the World Health Organization, intimate partner violence (IPV) refers to behaviours in an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm by current and former partners. Although IPV can manifest in the perpetration of physical violence by women against men, the statistics overwhelmingly indicate that women and girls are disproportionately victims of IPV perpetrated against them by men.

In Canada, prior to the 1980s, IPV tended to be viewed as a private or family matter, rather than an issue of public concern. Often called “wife battering,” there were few laws, policies, and procedures in place to address it. Yet, in the contemporary context, research has found that current police responses to IPV can undermine trust between women and the officers who claim to protect them. Additionally, a concerning report from CBC Canada revealed that one-third of police officer suspensions in Ontario were due to accusations of gender-based violence. This underscores the pervasiveness of IPV in Canadian culture and highlights how the endemic gender-based violence and racism within the police force render officers ill-suited as the first point of contact for victim-survivors. Consequently, they are often unprepared to provide the necessary response in these critical situations.


Criminalization

To address the lack of a sufficient response to IPV, mandatory charging policies were introduced in the 1980s, with some form of mandatory charging to address “spousal abuse” being implemented in most Canadian provinces by 1985. Mandatory charging policies served to criminalize IPV perpetration, signaling to the public that not only is IPV unacceptable, but that it is now a crime. 

Broadly, criminalization involves making an activity or behaviour illegal by creating and implementing a law or policy which defines it as a crime. Criminalization also involves the establishment of penalties or consequences for engaging in the behaviour or act. When IPV was criminalized in 1986, police responding to an IPV call became legally obligated to lay criminal charges against the primary aggressor. 

However, mandatory charging has had a number of unintended consequences, with IPV victims sometimes being charged either on their own or along with their male attacker. This often occurs in cases where police officers are unable to determine which partner is the “primary aggressor” or in cases where a woman uses force to physically defend herself and stop an attack. The criminalization of women who have experienced IPV is a significant miscarriage of justice and cause for concern. Criminalizing women who have reached out to the police for help in stopping violence is inherently problematic. 


Impact of Women’s Criminalization

The criminalization of IPV victim-survivors has gendered and harmful consequences, disproportionately impacting Black women, Indigenous women, migrant women, and women living in poverty. Criminal charges may hinder their ability to obtain or maintain employment, especially in fields such as nursing or early childhood education; professions often dominated by women and where employees cannot have a criminal record. A criminal record can also create a significant barrier to securing housing since many landlords request prospective tenants to provide criminal record checks.  

When mothers with children are criminalized through mandatory charging policies, they may risk involvement from child welfare agencies, who may see police involvement as a cause for intervention. In a study of IPV victims who were criminalized through mandatory charging policies, 15 out of 19 mothers reported harmful impacts on their children as a result. In cases where women engaged in violence to defend themselves and were criminalized, they were concerned about their children being left in their violent male partner’s care, where they were at risk of neglect or violence.


Future Directions 

Reactive and punitive criminal justice policies are not only damaging to women who are IPV victim-survivors, they also fail to take preventative measures to address IPV. Scholars and advocates are increasingly calling for proactive, trauma-and violence-informed care (TVIC) approaches to IPV prevention and response. 

TVIC is a systemic approach that emphasizes understanding an individual’s violent behaviour within the context of their life experiences. TVIC provides a compassionate, non-judgmental lens through which to examine the impacts of violence and trauma, creating safer environments that promote truthful disclosure and meaningful intervention. Crucially, TVIC also accounts for the “victim-offender overlap” in the context of IPV – a well-documented phenomenon where many perpetrators of crime were previously victims themselves. For an approach to effectively break cycles of violence, it must recognize how trauma transcends the categories of perpetrator and victim.

Implementing TVIC principles could mark a fundamental reorientation in how IPV policies and programs are developed in Canada. Rather than flawed, one-size-fits-all responses that often re-traumatize and criminalize survivors, TVIC demands equity-oriented, customized interventions that provide what each individual truly needs to heal and stop perpetuating harm.

Meaningful IPV prevention requires getting ahead of violence before it occurs. TVIC models create the foundation to do just that – by proactively addressing the systemic and structural causes of violence rather than waiting for tragedy to strike. When coupled with broader societal efforts to dismantle patriarchy, promote gender equity, and build economically thriving communities, TVIC could help with the prevention and elimination of IPV.

This change will require dedicated resources, comprehensive training for social workers, police officers, policy-makers, and legislators, and a true institutional commitment to transforming existing systems and structures. Overcoming long-standing biases that dismiss or diminish trauma may prove to be challenging. The criminalization of IPV victim-survivors persists, in part, because of a persistent need to fundamentally reconsider social approaches to IPV. TVIC provides a path forward that is centred on healing, compassion, and acknowledging the pervasive impact of violence and trauma in individuals’ lives. 

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