In our new series, “Confidence, Courage, Hope,” we profile exceptional Scripps students, alumnae, faculty, and staff who are making a difference–from the local to the global–at the front lines of COVID-19. As we face these unprecedented challenges, the Scripps College community comes together for inspiration and solidarity in this unique moment in history.
Katherine Lawrence ’05 is a lawyer at North Shore Law in Vancouver, British Columbia, focusing on estate and family law. Amid shelter-in-place orders that span the North American continent, she shares how in her practice of family law, specifically issues of domestic violence within family law, she has adapted to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
Marketing and Communications: How has the nature of your work changed amid the coronavirus pandemic?
Katherine Lawrence: The vast majority of the lawyers and staff from my office are working from home. The courthouse is currently closed to the public. We are only permitted to obtain a hearing if there is an issue regarding a protection order, or an urgent issue regarding children. All other matters have been adjourned. However, this is changing every day. We are currently conducting emergency hearings by telephone and Zoom.
We no longer have the ability to go home and have a mental break from these very challenging cases. Rather, our homes are now our offices, and when we are not managing a high conflict family matter, we are having to personally deal with a very stressful pandemic. I imagine this is worse for healthcare workers. Also, while working from home, it is difficult to address the court on the phone while managing small children, pets, spouses, and other distractions in the background.
MC: There have been reports that shelter-in-place orders can create situations ripe for family conflict, specifically, domestic abuse. Have you seen this increase?
KL: During the pandemic, domestic violence calls to shelters have been up 300 percent. In my practice, I would say that 90 percent of my new cases since March 2020 involved some sort of domestic violence, which can be physical, verbal, emotional, and/or financial abuse. I am seeing abusers use the pandemic to further control and abuse their spouse. For example, we are seeing that abusers are withholding children from the other spouse in the name of following self-isolation orders. Some abusers are refusing to follow court orders knowing the courts are operating on a limited basis and we cannot enforce many orders right now. A few abusers are refusing to pay child support, saying that they no longer have enough income, even though they’re still working. I have seen an abuser call their spouse’s employer and threaten to report the employer to the authorities for not closing, even though that employer and the spouse were deemed to be essential workers. These abusers say that they are doing these things to protect their spouse and/or their children from becoming ill. In reality, all of these acts are about power and control and are being used to further control their spouse and/or gain leverage in their legal proceedings.
I had one pro bono client whose partner had obtained another apartment in January 2020, but he refused to move out of the family home until my client had entered into to a separation agreement on terms favorable to him. My client could not afford to leave the home and the women’s shelters were full due to the pandemic. He refused to move out and continued to verbally abuse her and throw items at the wall during arguments in the presence of their seven-year-old child. The court ordered him to leave the family home, forbade him to speak negatively to my client, and put in place a parenting time schedule.
MC: Has the pandemic affected women’s ability to access legal and other services?
KL: Prior to the pandemic, we were able to get women into a safe place and then commence a legal action. Now, I am having to navigate a situation where I am taking a woman’s affidavit over the phone, but her abuser might be in the next room. It’s a much more dangerous situation. On the other hand, we are now able to rely on affidavits obtained by videoconference and attend hearings virtually. For women in rural areas of BC, these types of changes to our judicial system will hopefully lead to increased access to the courts, and therefore, more access to justice. Legal Aid, Access Pro Bono and other non-profits are trying to fill in the gaps, but we were still dealing with long wait times for trials and adjournments of both applications to obtain interim orders and trials before the pandemic. Access to justice was a problem before the pandemic—it has only exacerbated this problem.
MC: Why did you choose to go into family law?
KL: Scripps instilled in me a strong sense of civic duty and commitment to my community. My senior thesis as a political science major was regarding the use of rape warfare in international conflicts, and it really introduced me to how ubiquitous violence against women is around the world. Since graduation, I have volunteered and worked for organizations that either support women or focus on working to end violence against women. In law school, I was inspired by my wonderful professors, Judge Mark A. Juhas and Judge Scott M. Gordon, who showed me how law truly impacted individuals in such a profound way. After I took their class, I obtained internships and clerkships in the area of family law both in the non-profit sector and in government. The vast majority of the work I did was supporting victims of domestic violence.
MC: What advice would you give and/or resources would you share to those experiencing domestic violence?
KL: If you feel afraid of your partner, or anyone that you are residing with, talk to someone about it—your family, your friend, a colleague, a counselor, a lawyer, or anyone you feel comfortable with. Domestic violence is insidious and makes people experiencing it feel like they are “crazy,” oftentimes due to gas-lighting (where you experience abuse, but the perpetrator denies it or says it never happened). You are not crazy.
Prototypes Organization and Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law in Southern California are great resources. And for those wanting to help, they can volunteer at a local organization where ending violence against women, minorities, black people, immigrants, or children is part of their mission statement, even if it means helping to stuff envelopes; join marches and protests—safely, of course; call local representatives; donate funds to a women’s shelter or organization where endings violence is part of their mission statement; and listen when someone tells you about any sort of abuse they may be experiencing. Domestic violence is not always physical and verbal, it is oftentimes subtle. Domestic violence is about exerting power and control over a person, which can take many forms including psychological and financial.