Courts failing to fight male violence against women

One of the ways to tackle the ongoing issue of male violence against women is for the courts to send a clear message that this is unacceptable, Kimlee Wong says. But she argues recent decisions show that courts are failing in this regard.

Case of RCMP officer sentenced to house arrest for domestic assault proves courts don't treat issue seriously

A protester at a March 7 rally in Halifax calling for an inquiry into the actions of Judge Gregory Lenehan. Lenehan acquitted a cab driver of sexual assault in a controversial decision. Kimlee Wong says the courts need to do a better job of helping to prevent violence against women. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

One of the ways to tackle the ongoing issue of male violence against women is for the courts to send a clear message that this is unacceptable.

Sadly, the courts seem to be failing in this regard.

A recent court decision in Newfoundland and Labrador echoes decisions by former Justice Robin Camp — who asked a defendant, "Why couldn't you just keep your knees together?" —and Judge Gregory Lenehan, who said in a recent decision that "Clearly, a drunk can consent."

The case of Cameron Lockhart, a Newfoundland and Labrador RCMP officer sentenced to 14 days house arrest for assaulting a former girlfriend, highlights ignorance about trauma and male violence against women.

In her sentencing of the RCMP officer, Justice Deborah Paquette made four serious mistakes.

First, she minimized male violence against women. During the trial, the court heard that Lockhart didn't want his girlfriend to go out with her friends, they argued and he choked her.

Paquette downplayed the strangulation, deciding it only happened for a brief period and the woman wasn't injured.

So how long do you have to be strangled to make it meaningful? Research shows that only 11 pounds of pressure for 10 seconds can cause unconsciousness, while brain death can occur after only a few minutes.

Paquette ignored the terror of almost being killed at the hands of a man who says he loves you. Many who work with domestic abuse survivors know strangulation is an effective tactic abusers use to exert power over intimate partners and is a predictor of later lethal violence in domestic relationships, according to a 2008 study. Victims believe they may be killed and feel tremendous terror both during and long after the experience. 
In 2010, the state of New York introduced a new law around strangulation, which said, "Strangulation and these related offenses epitomize the power dynamic in most domestic violence cases. This is because these acts send a message to the victim that the batterer holds the power to take the victim's life, with little effort, in a short period of time, and in a manner that may leave little evidence of an altercation."

Perpetrator treated as victim

Secondly, in her decision in the Lockhart case, Justice Paquette treated the perpetrator as the victim.

Paquette sentenced Lockhart to 14 days house arrest — a sentence she said was sufficient to denounce the crime and act as a deterrent. Lockhart is appealing his conviction, indicating he hasn't taken responsibility for his actions.

Paquette upheld the perpetrator's sense of victimhood in her decision, citing the case's slow movement through the legal system (no sympathy for the victim who also endured a drawn-out court case?) and saying that he lost friends, felt shame and suffered depression.

Paquette seems unaware that survivors of strangulation often report nightmares, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

The social fallout Lockhart faced is the consequence of his own actions. Blaming media attention for his shame and isolation removes Lockhart's responsibility for his actions.

Paquette's decision makes male pattern violence against women seem acceptable, or at least defensible.

Not a 'private' matter

Third, she categorized domestic violence as a "private" matter. As noted in CBC's story on the sentencing, Paquette said the assault happened in a home and Lockhart is not a threat to the public.

A huge barrier to addressing domestic violence is the belief that domestic violence is a "private" matter. It took decades of work by advocates and survivors to make it a visible and socially significant issue. For many victims, the violence spills into their workplace, impacting their employment and economic independence.

If his girlfriend simply wanting to go out with friends is enough to make him strangle her, what else will set him off? How can we trust he will take assault seriously as an officer of the law? Who's to say his violence will not extend to people he comes into contact with on his job?  

Lockhart's actions demonstrate a need for power and control and a lack of self-control. Being an RCMP officer gives him a high degree of privilege and opportunity to use force or threaten people with less power than he has.

What about the safety of his female co-workers? Hundreds of female officers and staffers are part of a class action lawsuit against the RCMP for harassment and abuse. It seems the last thing the RCMP needs is more unrepentant abusers of women in their midst.

That Canadian judges are still defining male pattern violence against women as a "private" matter is extremely alarming.

Lack of understanding of trauma

And finally, Justice Paquette's decision shows a lack of understanding about trauma.

The stress of intimate-partner violence can exacerbate chronic health conditions already present. Even after the end of the relationship, domestic abuse survivors are at risk for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and an increase in suicidal thoughts.

During Lockhart's trial, the Crown prosecutor asked that he be restricted from possessing a weapon, indicating a concern about his future behaviour. History illustrates that, if not addressed, male pattern violence increases with time.

Approximately every six days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner in Canada. Thousands more suffer from emotional, verbal, financial and legal abuse on a daily basis. 

This has to stop. It's about time our judiciary took all forms of violence against women seriously.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

A mother of three and member of the Sagkeeng First Nation, Kimlee Wong has more than three decades of experience working in the areas of public education, social justice and environmental health issues. A former journalist for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, she describes herself as an 'enthusiastic public educator.' She currently works with domestic abuse survivors going through the family court system.