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By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

There is a growing need to train family lawyers in Quebec to better prepare and handle domestic violence cases as the number of victims continues to increase in the province.

Juripop, a non-profit organization that, according to its website, develops legal information projects and provides access to low-cost legal services, began its domestic violence training program last week after nearly two years of consultations with local organizations.

Justine Fortin, a lawyer at Juripop and project manager for the domestic violence initiative, told The Record that the program runs until May 2021. There will be four live online video sessions in total. Nearly 300 lawyers across the province attended the first lesson.

“What we hope is that we will have a list of lawyers in the province with this specific expertise in dealing with domestic violence,” said Fortin. “The training is free because of this mandate we had from the transparency committee.”

The Quebec government and its transparency committee tabbed Juripop with the task of educating lawyers on how to deal with sensitive cases like domestic violence. Fortin said the judicial system tends to put these cases in a box, ignoring the greater context.

Judges often concentrate on what the law says is good for the child, she continued, but there’s more to it. Juripop even reviewed its own domestic violence cases. Realizing they needed more training on the subject, they consulted experts, frontline workers and criminalists.

“We learned that we had to change our way to be in front of a judge,” said Fortin. “We needed to change our way to defend the rights of the women that are our clients so that we can answer their needs in a way that they would regain trust in our justice system.”

The program is all-encompassing, the lawyer explained, with interactive videos and practical lessons discussing best pre-trial and in-court practices. It also touches on post-separation violence, child custody battles, and alimony issues.

Fortin said that domestic violence cases rarely stop immediately once it heads to court. The abuser will try to regain control of the victim. The program aims to inform lawyers about the reality of the situation, which can quickly turn into a life-threatening scenario.

“There are real risks, homicide risks, for women and children when there is a separation and as family lawyers we have an important role to play as a security net,” said Fortin.

It’s like a tornado, she added, and it begins with the abuser losing control. And when you lose control, Fortin said, anything can happen, which puts victims in a high risk situation. Lawyers need to be more careful, if they want to help victims, she reflected.

The problem, though, is there aren’t enough specialized or trained lawyers that deal specifically with domestic violence in the province, according to the organizations Juripop spoke to during its consultation period, which includes L’Escale de l’Estrie in Sherbrooke.

“We have to stand between our clients and their abuser, but we have to stand in front of the judge and plead this reality,” said Fortin.

While the program provides live video conferences, Fortin added that all of the information will be up on the Juripop website a few weeks after each session. They are currently developing an interactive online platform available to all lawyers in the province.

Fortin said distress calls have stagnated, when asked about the number of victims that came forward this year. They no longer have the opportunity to tell a co-worker, friend or family member because they are stuck inside with their abuser, she explained.

There are resources available, though, and victims need to know people are always there to help, Fortin continued. She believes there could be a surge in emergency phone calls once the pandemic subsides in the province.

“Frontline workers are there and you should call SOS Violence Conjugale,” she said. “It’s a 24-hour service and they also have a texting option and we at Juripop have a direct line with this resource.”

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