When Sheila and Liz left abusive relationships, the hard part was supposed to be over. But both women say fighting their exes in family court has been draining.

CBC News has agreed to protect both women's names because they still fear for their safety.

"You feel so trapped in your relationship but then when you're in the system you feel just as trapped," said Liz, who has sat in front of six different judges in the past four years as her case moves through the system.

"My ex has fired and rehired and self-represented. He has gone through four lawyers and he's asked for delays along every step of the way ... to prolong it, to maintain control. So your sense of hope, it really wears thin over time."

"Family court, in my experience, didn't have a clue," Sheila added.

Her husband had already been convicted of abuse when they went to family court, she said, but it was only raised after she paid money for the criminal court transcripts.

"Which are not cheap," she said.

"[Family court] is more about domination and control and power and it goes on for a long time."

Assessing family court across Canada

Leighann Burns, executive director of the Ottawa women's shelter Harmony House, said stories like Sheila's and Liz's happen in courthouses across Canada.

And now she gets to do something to try to change it.

Earlier this summer the shelter received a $400,000 federal grant to study the family court system in Canada and make recommendations.

"For survivors, they need practical and quick assistance to deal with the things they're coping with and often the system takes too long and doesn't really understand the complexity of the situation they're dealing with," said Burns.

For the next three years Burns and her team will assess the state of family law across the country and will also be looking outside of Canada's borders for inspiration. They'll also be bringing together advocates, survivors, lawyers and academics to get their views.

As part of their grant, Harmony House will revise family law courses at the University of Ottawa.

On top of that they'll be training law students to be more effective advocates in family court.

"It's a really ambitious project," Burns said.