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Experts are set to meet in Winnipeg this week to explore how some of society’s most vulnerable people — from the marginalized to migrants to domestic abuse survivors — can better navigate legal systems.
The University of Winnipeg’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Justice Studies is hosting a public conference beginning Wednesday that will bring together academics, human rights and legal experts, as well as Manitoba Queen’s Bench Justice Colleen Suche.
They will speak about what accessing justice means in Canada and why certain groups, including Indigenous Peoples, refugees and women seeking sponsorship to stay in the country, often face additional barriers.
For example, courts still have trouble dealing with allegations of domestic violence and understanding how exposure to it affects children, York University law Prof. Janet Mosher says. She will discuss her research on access to justice for women without status in Canada.
Mosher has been studying cases where family-class sponsorships for permanent residency have been used as a way for abusive partners to control and manipulate victims.
Those cases often involve simultaneous family-law and immigration-law proceedings, and few lawyers have the expertise to handle both. Both types of proceedings must consider the best interests of any children involved, but courts are still grappling with how domestic violence between parents affects children.
"What happens sometimes with men who are abusive and controlling is they’ll promise to sponsor but not actually do it. And as the relationship unfolds, and perhaps the violence escalates, he will threaten her that if she tells anybody he won’t do the sponsorship," Mosher says.
"I can see in these cases that men make good on their threats when they call and report women to border control with a view to having them removed."
The result, Mosher says, is more women who have experienced domestic violence are more likely to face deportation — without their children.
"My sense is that there’s a relatively small pool of lawyers who really understand those connections," Mosher says.
"One of the things I think is critical around access to justice here is the ability to be able to access really competent legal counsel. That’s something that I think the men and women, mothers and fathers involved in these cases don’t have access to," she says.
It’s been a long-standing problem in Canada that legal systems are complex, slow and expensive.
In 2013, a national action committee tasked with examining the issue in civil and family courts recommended urgent reforms. They include making essential legal aid services available to everyone and making sure the justice system is equipped to address "everyday" legal problems.
Access to justice goes far beyond getting a lawyer or a timely court hearing, said conference organizer Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. It means being able to access information and education. Tackling those issues requires input from those outside of the legal profession as well as those within it.
"The thing we wanted to do was also open up what the idea of access to justice could mean more broadly," Walby said of this year’s conference.
"We want people from all walks of life and who are from all parts of town and who have all kinds of experiences to be there to listen to the talks, but also to contribute," he added. "They might have stories, they might have questions that we want to hear about, that the speakers want to hear about. It’s about that dialogue and that exchange, too."
The conference will be held at the University of Winnipeg. It is free and open to the public, and organizers will be collecting donations of new men’s and women’s socks and underwear for Project Manitouwabi, which supports people who are being released from custody. More information and a conference schedule is at cijs.ca.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.