The Winnipeg Family Violence Court
By E. Jam Ursel*
Sociology, University of Manitoba
Published by authority of the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada.
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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.
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.
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.
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%).
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.
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
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
The very small number of elder abuse cases in relationto
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
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-
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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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