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The Winnipeg Family Violence Court

By E. Jam Ursel*
 Vol.14, No.12


  • Highlights

    Since 1990, cases of spousal, child and elder abuse in Winnipeg, Manitoba have been heard in a specialized family violence court.
  • The goals of the court were: (1) expeditious court processing; (2) rigorous prosecution; and, (3) more appropriate sentencing than that of non-specialized courts.
  • The court has been successful in achieving the goal of three-month average processing time and imposing more appropriate sentences for family violence cases. Limited success has been achieved with the goal of reducing case attrition prior to sentencing.

Department of Sociology, University of Manitoba

May 1994
ISSN 0715-271X

Published by authority of the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada.  © Minister of Industry, Science and Technology, 1994. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without prior written permission from Licence Services, Marketing Division, Statistics Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0T6

Prior to specialization, the most frequent sentences for family violence cases were conditional discharge, suspended sentences and probation. The most frequent sentences in the first two years of the Family Violence Court were probation, suspended sentence and incarceration.

Court-mandated treatment (batterers treatment groups and alcohol treatment) was a condition of 53% of all cases sentenced in Family Violence Court.


     The Winnipeg Family Violence Court (FVC) began operation in September, 1990. It is the first of its kind in Canada and handles first appearances, remands, guilty pleas and trials for spousal abuse, child abuse and elder abuse cases. This court represents an innovative experiment in the administration of justice and the response of the criminal justice system to family violence. The goals of the court, stated by the Manitoba Department of Justice, were: (1) to process cases expeditiously aiming for a three-month average processing time from first appearance to disposition; (2) to increase victim/witness information and cooperation and to reduce case attrition, particularly at the prosecutorial level (through a reduction in stays of proceedings); and, (3) to provide more consistent and appropriate sentencing to better protect the victim, to mandate treatment for the offender where suitable, and to increase monitoring of offenders (through probation services), all of which reinforce the policy of zero tolerance for family violence and violence against women in Manitoba. This Juristat examines the functioning of the Winnipeg Family Violence Court from the perspective of these three stated goals.

     The creation of the Family Violence Court was a direct response to the rising charge rates in family violence cases (Figure 1). It was an attempt to ensure that family violence cases were prosecuted as rigorously as other cases of interpersonal violence. The court also signalled a recognition that violent incidents involving family members were unlike other violent incidents. The victim is often highly bonded to and dependent on the assailant, resulting in a particularly vulnerable and often ambivalent witness. The specialized court was premised on the understanding that a just intervention must take these factors into consideration.

Research on the Winnipeg Family Violence court was made
    possible by funding from Justice Canada, the Manitoba Law 
   Foundation, Social Sciences andHumanities Research Council,
   the University of Manitoba, and Solicitor General, Canada.

The creation of a specialized court permitted the development of particular goals, protocols and procedures which could be implemented with a consistency not possible in general criminal court. The key to consistency has been specialization. With the recruitment of specially trained prosecutors and judges, problems of biased attitudes or lack of awareness on the part of court personnel were significantly reduced. In the first two years of the FVC, six crown attorneys worked full-time and 20 judges sat in the court on a revolving basis. In order to ensure timely hearings, specific courtrooms were designated for family violence cases. Initially, 28 hours of court time were designated per week, but by the end of the first year this had doubled to 52 hours per week, and had doubled again to 105 hours per week by the end of the second year.

    In addition, the FVC has two victim support programs, the Women's Advocacy Program and the Child Abuse Victim Witness Program, which provide support and advocacy for women and children who have been victims of violence by their partners, parents or caregivers.


This report is based on 4,080 family violence cases processed through the Winnipeg Family Violence Court in the first two years of operation. Data were collected in two ways. First, a data management file records every new case entering the court within a twelve month period, providing reliable numbers on the annual intake of the FVC. Intake data retrieved from court dockets provided information about the accused. Secondly, information on concluded cases was taken from crown attorney files. Cases are organized by date of first appearance. Subsequent appearances by the same accused during the same year are counted as one case. Cases are followed up for six months (for a maximum 18 month study period) capturing approximately 90% of all cases handled in court. However, this data set may underestimate the number of child abuse cases by as much as 20% because the processing time for child abuse trial cases frequently extends beyond 18 months.

All cases in which the victim is in a relationship of trust, dependency and/or kinship with the accused are designated family violence cases by this court. Cases classified as "spousal abuse" include those in which the victim is between the ages of 18 and 59 and who experienced abuse while an adult by a legal or common-law spouse, ex-spouse or current or former boyfriend/girlfriend. This category is not restricted to heterosexual relations, although the overwhelming majority of cases involve heterosexual couples.

Cases classified as 'elder abuse" include those in which the victim is 60 years of age or over and is abused by a spouse, child, caretaker or third party.

Cases classified as "child abuse" include those in which the victim is under the age of 18 at the time of the abuse. This includes adult witnesses who come forward with a complaint of historical abuse, as well as cases of multiple victimization in which at least one victim is a child. For example, a case of violence against both a women and her child would be counted within the category, of child abuse. Children are considered to be in a position of trust and dependency with all adults; therefore, children abused by individuals who are not family are also processed through the Family Violence Court.

As shown in Table 1, the overwhelming majority of cases in the specialized court are spousal abuse cases. This table also indicates that the 48% increase in volume between the first and second year is largely a function of increased charges in spousal abuse cases.

Case Characteristics

The most frequent charge in child abuse cases is sexual assault, while common assault is the most frequent charge in spousal and elder abuse cases (Table 2). Child abuse cases bear a resemblance to elder abuse cases on a number of dimensions. First, by virtue of age and dependency, both elder and child abuse victims are especially vulnerable. Secondly, while only 10% of victims were male in spousal abuse cases, victims were male in 19% of elder abuse and 26% of child abuse cases. Child and older abuse cases also have a high percentage of cases (34% and 26% respectively) involving multiple victims relative to spousal abuse cases (5%). In child abuse cases, one-half of these multiple victim incidents involve the child as a second victim in an attack on the mother. These are usually cases of physical assault. The remainder of multiple child-victim incidents are typically sexual offences against more than one child by one adult accused, usually male (93%).

     In cases of elder abuse, the most frequent type of multiple victim incident occurs when the elder is the second victim in an attack on an adult daughter or friend ("third party" relationship). Typically, the primary victim seeks refuge in the home of the older person and during an attack on the primary victim the older person is assaulted as well.

    A unique characteristic of elder abuse is the higher proportion of female accused (23%)2 Compared to child abuse (9%) and spousal abuse cases (7%). Despite some variation in the sex of the victim and the accused by type of abuse, it is important to reiterate that the overwhelming majority of victims are women and the overwhelming majority of accused are men. Thus, while age can modify levels of vulnerability, sex remains the most critical correlate with victimization.

    A final observation concerns the frequency of a prior criminal record among the. accused. Overall, the prior record rate is high: at least two-thirds of accused persons in all types of abuse had a prior record. Among spousal abuse cases, 74% of the accused had a prior record; 58% of these had a prior record for a previous assault on another person, and 34% for a previous assault on their spouse.

The relationship between the victim and the accused is identified in Table 3 for spousal abuse cases and in Table 4 for child abuse cases. The majority of spousal abuse cases involved couples in an ongoing relationship 67% of suspects were current common-law or marital partners or boyfriend/girlfriend to the victim. Estranged relations of ex-common-law, ex-spouse and ex-boyfriend/girlfriend accounted for 29% of cases. Among spousal abuse cases, 5% of the victims were pregnant at the time of the assault.

2  The very small number of elder abuse cases in relationto 
    spousal and child abuse suggests caution in interpreting this 

     Incidents of child abuse also occur most frequently in ongoing familial situations in which parents, grandparents and uncles account for 66% of the assaults. Among older abuse cases, the most common suspect relationship to female victims is marital, whereas adult offspring or a third party are most frequently accused of abuse against elderly males.

    In the second year of operation of the FVC, the number of children living in abusive households was recorded. Although the children were not themselves assaulted, their continual exposure to violence in the home could be considered a form of victimization. In the second year, there were 331 children who were the direct victims of abuse, and 983 cases of spousal abuse in which 1,882 children were present.

    These figures accentuate the destructive effect of family violence on the lives of 2,897 assailants and a total of 4,549 victims (2,6673 primary and 1,882 secondary) for a total of at least 6,946 residents of Winnipeg involved in the Family Violence Court in one year. By this estimation, two additional people were directly effected for every one case that came before the FVC in 1991-

Court Processing

    As mentioned above, three goals were articulated in establishing the FVC: first, expeditious court processing; second, rigorous prosecution; and third, more appropriate sentencing. With regard to the first goal, the identified measure of success was the ability of the court to achieve a three month average processing time from first appearance to disposition. The average processing time was 2.8 months in the first year, and 3.5 months in the second year. There is a substantial difference in processing time by type of case, however. Cases involving spousal abuse were processed most rapidly, while child abuse cases, on average, took much longer. The allocation of increasing court time to family violence cases has made it possible to achieve the goal of expeditious processing despite the substantial increase in volume of cases in the first two years.

    The second goal of the court was rigorous prosecution as measured by an increasing proportion of cases that proceeded to sentence or by a reduction in the stay rate.4 Measuring success of this goal requires comparative information about court processing prior to specialization, as well as consideration of the differential patterns of court processing by type of abuse. As this is a more complex measure, three perspectives on processing will be presented; first, overall processing for all cases disposed of in the two years; secondly, a breakdown of court processing patterns by type of case; and thirdly, a comparison of court processing data prior to specialization with the first and second year data for the Family Violence Court.

3   The 2,382 cases involved an additional 286 victims and 16 
4  Other, qualitative measures of prosecutorial rigor have been 
    reported in lengthier reports. See Ursel (1992) Final Report on the 
   First Year of the Family Violence Court submitted to Justice Canada

    As illustrated in Figure 2, the most frequent outcome for all cases heard in FVC was a guilty plea (54% of cases) followed by a stay of proceedings5 (27% of cases). Twenty percent of all cases proceeded to trial or preliminary hearing and a total of 60% of all cases proceeded to sentence.

    The outcomes of child and elder abuse cases were somewhat different from spousal abuse cases. Table 5 indicates that spousal abuse cases had a higher attrition rate than child or elder abuse cases, meaning that a higher percentage were stayed or dismissed and dropped out of the court process prior to sentencing. The stay rate for spousal abuse cases was 280/6 compared to 23% in elder abuse and 22% in child abuse cases. The number of cases dismissed for want of prosecution6 was 39% in spousal abuse cases compared to 38% in elder abuse and 17% in child abuse cases. The overall result is that a higher percentage of cases of child and elder abuse proceeded to sentencing than did spousal abuse cases.

     A final measure of rigorous prosecution is case attrition over time. Table 6 identifies case attrition prior to and following implementation of the Winnipeg Family Violence Court (Ursel, 1992)7. If lower stay rates and higher rates of cases proceeding to sentencing are used as a measure of rigorous prosecution, Table 6 indicates that the FVC has had modest success in this area. Greater success was achieved in the first year of FVC, while the second year data indicated a rising stay rate and, consequently, a declining rate of cases proceeding to sentencing.

    The change in the stay rate in the second year of operation of the FVC is found only in the spousal abuse cases - there is no increase in stays of proceedings in child abuse or older abuse cases. The difference may be the result of a substantial change in police charging practice in relation to spousal assault. Crown attorneys in the FVC report that as a result of an increasingly rigorous charging policy on the part of the police, they must deal with increasing numbers of' cases in which the evidence is weak or ambiguous or in which the victim/witness may be reluctant to testify (Ursel, 1993). It is difficult to interpret stay rates in the face of changing charging practices. In the third year of the FVC (data not presented), the Winnipeg Police Department introduced a new protocol for responding to domestic calls which virtually eliminated police discretion. This may again affect the limited quantitative measures of prosecutorial rigor.

7 This dataset consists of a 53% sample of all spousal abuse cases handled in the Winnipeg Courts from 1983 to 1986 including samples of 59% of cases in 1983, 61% in 1984, 61% in 1985 and 35% in 1986. Although not a random sample, the relatively large sample (1,625 cases out of a total of 3,085 court cases) improves the likelihood that these cases are reasonably represented. live of the spousal abuse cases heard over the four year period

     Notwithstanding these limitations, when the proportion of cases proceeding to sentence prior to specialization (53%) is compared to the overall rate of cases proceeding to sentencing in the two years of the FVC (60%), it would appear that the FVC has had an impact on the processing of family violence cases.


    Sentencing is the area in which the most dramatic change is evident in family violence case processing. In the first two years of the FVC, there was a clear change in sentencing practices related to specialization. Prior to specialization, the most frequent sentences were conditional discharge, suspended sentence and probation. Incarceration was rarely an outcome in family violence cases: approximately 6% of all cases over a 4 year average, or 11 % of cases which proceeded to sentence, resulted in a period of incarceration (Ursel, 1992).

    In contrast to general court, the most frequent disposition in the two years of the Family Violence Court was probation followed by suspended sentence and incarceration. Table 7 identifies these sentencing patterns before and after specialization.

    In assessing the impact of sentencing, the conditions attached to a sentence are often as important as the sentence itself. Ninety percent of probation sentences required supervision and 58% were two years or longer in length. A lengthy period of supervised probation ensures a mechanism for the ongoing monitoring of the abuser. In addition to supervision, the FVC regularly mandates treatment for the offender. Court mandated treatment was a condition of 53% of all persons sentenced in FVC: attendance at and completion of a batterers treatment group was a condition of one-half of the mandated cases, with alcohol treatment designated in 39%. The cumulative effect of these conditions is that the FVC provided a much more intensive program of monitoring and treatment for offenders than was the case prior to specialization.

    A comparison of sentencing patterns by type of abuse indicates that there is little difference in elder and spousal abuse cases in the severity of sentencing in the Family Violence Court. However, there is a clear pattern of more severe sentencing in child abuse cases. Furthermore, the severity of the sentence is related to the type of child abuse, with more severe sentences occurring in sexual abuse cases. Considering only those cases which proceeded to sentence, the most frequent disposition in child abuse cases, like adult abuse cases, was probation. However, 26% of child physical abuse cases and 49% of child sexual abuse cases resulted in a jail term, and only 6% of all child abuse cases resulted in conditional discharge.


    The Family Violence Court in Winnipeg is a very innovative experiment in justice. Early results indicate that the goals of expeditious processing and more consistent and appropriate sentencing for family violence cases have been achieved in the first two years of operation. More modest success has been achieved for the goal of rigorous prosecution with the greatest gains in the first year of operation. However, these data must be interpreted in light of the practices and policies of the local police force which has assumed an increasingly rigorous charging policy. In order for the court to remain viable and to continue to achieve its goals, there will need to be continuous coordination among all levels of the criminal justice system. Data collected over the coming years will provide longer term measures of the operational success of this court.

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