Minister suggests Alberta adopts “Clare’s Law” to prevent domestic abuse

Alberta currently holds the third-highest rate of intimate partner violence, leading to 166 deaths between 2008 and 2017

Wyatt Claypool Montreal QC

Following the murder of Clare Wood in the UK by her boyfriend, who had a domestic violence record not disclosed to Clare by police, Saskatchewan conducted an in-depth review of six domestic homicides and provided a list of 19 recommendations. They found a specialized first responder team was needed to handle domestic violence cases effectively.

Saskatchewan is the first Canadian province to legislate their version of “Clare’s Law” to reduce what is the highest domestic violence rate among the provinces. The legislation allows for law enforcement, family members, the person at risk, and other professionals involved to requesting an application to disclose the criminal record of a person under reasonable suspicion of domestic abuse.

In 2015, 5,976 cases of intimate partner violence were reported in Saskatchewan. That’s 666 cases per 100,000 people. There has not yet been enough time to determine how effective Clare’s law has been in Saskatchewan, but the principles behind the law should guarantee few ill-effects if any.

Alberta currently holds the third-highest rate of intimate partner violence, leading to 166 deaths between 2008 and 2017. That poor performance is reflected in the fact that 557 women per 100,000 and 228 men per 100,000 were abused by a family member, according to 2015 Statistics Canada numbers.

Rajan Sawhney, Albertas minister of Community and Social Services, called for the province to deal with its domestic violence problems by also adopting Clare’s Law.

“Give Sawhney credit for mentioning it [in the legislature] to help curb domestic violence,” said Jonathan Denis, Alberta’s former Attorney General.

“Our government is committed to addressing domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Among the other initiatives underway, we pledge to pass an Alberta version of Clare’s Law to ensure Alberta’s at risk for domestic violence have fuller awareness of a domestic partner’s history of violence or violent acts,” stated Sawhney.

There is “no one solution” asserted Denis “[Clare’s law is] a step forward…[authorities] can’t presume guilt by accusation,” keeping the law from being abused, making this step forward very agreeable.

Although these changes to current law are positive measures, some factors will continue to hamper law enforcement in rural parts of Alberta.

Kara Barker, an Albertan Crown prosecutor, summed these problems up as being mainly budgetary, and time-related.

In Alberta, the previous NDP government implemented a 4-1/2-year wage freeze, which has disincentivized lawyers looking to become crown prosecutors. Now, there are 306 Crown prosecutors in Alberta, with 105 Crown prosecutors working in regional offices. Leaving only 20 in rural offices, predominantly Northern Alberta.

“I am not sure that my caseload has increased as a result of the salary freeze, but I do know that we have lost a lot of talented people in the past couple of years. What I do hear is that caseloads are going up and a lot of junior prosecutors work long hours to manage these heavy workloads,” explained Barker.

What proved more concerning was the case burden, the wage freeze in culmination with the federal government imposing time limits on criminal trials (18 and 30 months) ever since the 2016 “R v Jordan” Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruling. The effect is that courts have been effectively triaged. Overall the caseload burden has increased, forcing cases of lesser importance to be cast aside.

In Alberta alone, since the 2016 SCC decision, 46 cases have been thrown out of court due to delays.

“In 2013 a woman in Airdrie was the victim of an alleged sexual assault – case dropped due to delays – Lepp injected a sense of urgency” explained Denis.

Other experts suggest moving rural traffic court issues in rural [areas] to a tribunal system, allocating more time in tackling severe offences.

The UCP has pledged $10 million for rural crime and $2 million for Crown Prosecutors, which the RCMP cites will lead to a distinct improvement in combating crime, particularly in rural ridings to the north and south.

A recent UCP report on rural crime also urged a federal review of self-defence laws and the release of annual public reports detailing provincial crime statistics.

With the current solutions of increasing law enforcement budgets, and implementing more decentralized courtroom systems being longer-term solutions, rural Albertans need some assistance in the meantime. Kara Barker shared some advice on what can be done now about domestic violence.

“Some other approaches would be education. Young people need to be aware of this type of violence. Interpersonal violence is so insidious. It can start innocuously and gradually escalate.  If people are made aware of what it looks like, then maybe they can identify it at the earlier stages before their lives get so entwined.” Barker said.

Rural crime and safety should be a non-partisan issue, and the province should expect more cooperation between different political perspectives in the future. The rise in crime has effects on all Albertans.

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