EG award promotes legal change in domestic and sexual abuse

Emerging female lawyers can use the “power, privilege and voice” of their legal training to bring greater awareness and legal responsiveness to the area of sexual or domestic violence and abuse, says Toronto personal injury and health lawyer Elizabeth Grace.

“Legal change can and does happen in a way that makes a positive difference in the lives of people who have experienced different forms of sexual and physical abuse,” says Grace, a partner with Lerners LLP, who is encouraging the submission of nominations for the 2016 Elizabeth Grace Emerging Leaders Award.

The award, available to Ontario-based women with less than five years of experience practising law, aims to recognize practical, policy or academic law-related work, leadership and contributions in areas that advance the understanding of sexual or domestic violence and abuse, or otherwise advances the rights and interests of vulnerable persons who have suffered or are at risk of suffering such violence and abuse.

This is the second year the award will be handed-out by Lerners LLP and the Women’s Law Association of Ontario (WLAO) to recognize women who are emerging leaders in their fields.

It will be presented in Toronto at the WLAO Award night on June 8. The deadline for nominations is April 30.

Grace, winner of the WLAO 2014 President’s Award, has been lauded for her outstanding service and her leadership role driving the development of a new body of Ontario law that would provide civil redress to victims of sexual assault and abuse.

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Grace discusses why she believes in promoting leadership among new female lawyers and her hopes for the future in this area of law.

Q: Why is it important to encourage young female lawyers to contribute to the legal field in a way that promotes a better understanding of sexual and/or domestic violence and abuse?

A: Sexual assault and violence is, unfortunately, widespread in our world and is showing no sign of going away. Women, children and vulnerable males are the ones most frequently targeted. Since I started working in the abuse area more than 20 years ago, I have observed that the law is slow to change. But with hard work, it does happen. When the change is for the better, there is little that is more gratifying for a lawyer committed to her clients and to seeing justice done.

The Ontario government’s “It’s Never Okay” initiative, the select committee of the legislature that was struck to consider issues of sexual violence on harassment, and Bill 132, which seeks to reform some provincial legislation in this area, are all indicators that junior members of the legal profession can make a positive difference in the lives of people who have suffered sexual abuse or who are at risk of doing so.

Q: What would you tell a young female lawyer who is hoping to make advances in this area of law?

There will be times when you become discouraged, even very discouraged. Deeply disturbing things are done to people and the pace of change in attitudes generally and in the legal sphere specifically is slow, but do not give up. Use the power, privilege and voice that your legal training and experience give you to bring greater awareness to this area and to make the legal system more responsive to the complex issues that pervade this area.

When I think of my 20-plus years in practice, I am encouraged by the fact that we will soon see in Ontario more liberal rules regarding limitation period defences. These defences will no longer operate as a technical time-bar to sexual assault, domestic violence and sexual misconduct claims, whether advanced before Ontario’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board or before its civil courts.

When this happens, this will be the second time that I will have witnessed a relaxation of the rules relating to limitation periods in this area. This tells me that legal change can and does happen in a way that makes a positive difference in the lives of people who have experienced different forms of sexual and physical abuse.

Q: What legal change is needed to improve the realities for victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse?

There is plenty of change that is still needed, but one of the areas I have been focused on for several years now is the need to help our poorer citizens who are receiving social benefits like Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Benefits (ODSP) and who have a history of sexual abuse.

Last spring I appeared before the select committee on sexual violence and harassment and recommended that compensation awards by Ontario’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and by our courts should not be subject to the government’s arbitrary claw-back limits.

These limits mean impoverished survivors of abuse on benefits routinely lose large parts of their awards by having to give them up to the government.

I was really pleased when the select committee released its report in December 2015 and recommended that “Payments under the Compensation for Victims of Crime Act and compensation related to claims of sexual assault [be] added to the list of asset and income exemptions used when calculating government assistance benefit eligibility.”

This change is overdue and I am anxious to see it put into effect with the necessary changes to the Regulations under the Ontario Works and ODSP Acts.

For more information on the award and the nomination process, visit Lerners LLP. The nomination form can be downloaded here.

This article originally appeared on AdvocateDaily.com
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