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Spousal Abuse, Children and the Courts: The Case For Social Rather Than Legal Change

  • Linda Neilson (a1)

This article explores arguments for and against proposals for statutory changes that would require Canadian judges to consider partner or “spousal” abuse when making decisions about child custody and access, in terms of the likely implications for women. The author discusses, in historic context, the relationships of social change to the evolution of social ideology and professional “knowledge” about gender and family and the influences of these on the evolution of family law, in order to demonstrate that legal changes alone are unlikely to produce positive benefits for abused women and their children. Moreover, an analysis of the legal discourse of judges as reported in the Canadian Reports on Family Law between 1983 and 1996 suggests the need for caution. Instead of judicial sensitivity to the special vulnerabilities of women in abusive situations, the case law indicates that judges are applying an “objective” incidents-based approach to assessments of abuse. Because this approach ignores the special vulnerabilities of women and makes it appear that abuse is symmetrical by gender, women may be disadvantaged if judges are required to deny or limit abuser's access to, or custody of, their children. The author concludes that, if what is intended is the protection of abused women and children, the solution lies less in giving more power to judges than in promoting social change through collective action, the evolution of professional “knowledge” that ultimately will find reflection in law, and the allocation of tangible resources for the benefit of abused women and their children.


Dans cet article, l'auteure pèse le pour et le contre de certaines modifications à la loi qui obligeraient les juges canadiens, au moment de l'octroi des droits de garde et d'accès, à tenir compte des actes de violence du conjoint ou du conjoint de fait. Elle expose les incidences de telles modifications pour les femmes victimes de violence conjugale. Tentant de démontrer que les modifications à la loi ne peuvent à elles seules améliorer la situation des femmes battues et de leurs enfants, l'auteure fait un survol historique des changements sociaux et de l'évolution du «savoir» professionnel concernant les différences entre les sexes et la notion de famille, et l'impact plus général de cette évolution sur celle du droit de la famille. Or, une analyse du discours judiciaire tel qu'il ressort de la jurisprudence rapportée dans les recueils de droit de la famille entre les années 1983 et 1996 incite à la prudence. En effet, plutôt que de dévoiler une certaine sensibilité judiciaire aux problèmes vécus par les femmes victimes de violence conjugale, la jurisprudence révèle au contraire que les juges abordent la violence conjugale de façon très pragmatique. Cette approche occultant la situation particulière des femmes victimes de violence et envisageant la violence comme phénomène le plus souvent symétrique chez les sexes, les femmes sont défavorisées lorsque les juges limitent ou refusent les droits de garde ou d'accès au père. L'auteure conclut que, si le but des modifications proposées est de protéger les femmes victimes de violence conjugale et leurs enfants, il est davantage souhaitable d'encourager les changements sociaux par l'action collective, le développement du «savoir» professionnel—développement qui, tôt ou tard, trouverait écho dans la loi—et l'octroi effectif de ressources matérielles et financières destinées aux victimes et leurs enfants.

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Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société
  • ISSN: 0829-3201
  • EISSN: 1911-0227
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-journal-of-law-and-society-la-revue-canadienne-droit-et-societe
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