One particular example of the ongoing abuse many women experience when they leave their partner is legal bullying, especially in family court.
This abuse/bullying can take many forms. The abuser may:
- bring repeated motions on issues that have already been decided
- fail to produce documents or information required in the court proceeding
- seek repeated delays for no real reason
- repeatedly change lawyers
- represent himself even when he has no financial need to do so
- make complaints about those involved in the process (lawyers, mediators, assessors, judges, etc.)
- make malicious and unfounded reports to the court and other officials about the woman
- appeal decisions even when there is no possibility of success
- fail to obey court orders
His overarching goal, of course, is to maintain his control over his partner, to intimidate her, to prevent her from moving on with her life and/or to wear her down to the point she agrees to return to him.
The impacts on her may be varied:
- if the bullying follows years of psychological abuse and control, she may be very vulnerable to his new strategy
- she may have fears for her physical safety or that of her children
- if she has a lawyer, she may incur legal costs she cannot afford
- if she is unrepresented, she may have to take time away from work for additional court appearances, which could jeopardize her employment
- if she is unrepresented, she may have to deal with him directly, which can be both emotionally and physically unsafe she may concede on issues simply to end the contact with him
- she may have to undergo repeated investigations by anyone to whom he has made malicious reports
- if she has children, she will have to deal with the impact-direct or indirect-that the bullying has on them
The very nature of family law makes it difficult to deal with legal bullying. There are many legitimate reasons to return to court over time to deal with changes in the circumstances of the family that could mean a variation to custody, access or support is in order. Because family law is so open-ended, it is easy for an abuser to find ways to manipulate the system and the process.
A number of issues can arise when an abuser decides to represent himself:
- documents may be prepared inappropriately or incorrectly, thus slowing down the process
- the abuser may try to have direct contact with his ex-partner, creating safety issues for her and the children
- pre-trial negotiations are likely to be unsuccessful as the abuser’s focus is not on resolution but on the ongoing control of his ex-partner
- the judge may bend over backwards to assist the self-represented party, thus creating an uneven playing field in the courtroom
- cross examination of the woman by her abuser will almost surely create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for her
There are some legal strategies for dealing with legal bullies. For example:
- judges can make orders, with consequences for non-compliance, to require timely disclosure of information needed to allow a case to proceed
- the Courts of Justice Act, section 140, allows judges to make an order prohibiting a party from bringing further court proceedings without specific permissions from the court if he has been identified as a “vexatious litigant”
- The Rules of /Civil Procedure have two sections dealing with troublesome parties. Rule 60.11 permits a judge to make a contempt court order against a party who defies court procedures or orders. Rule 57 allows a judge to order a bully to pay all the costs of the victim if he brings harassing matters in front of the court.