Introduction to Family Violence
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by JP Boyd, KC, Boyd Arbitration Chambers; Tannis Baradziej, Duncan Allen Law LLP; and Manjeet Chana, People's Law School in December 2021.
If you or someone you know is a victim of family violence, there is help. You can get in touch with the police, community workers, the court system, or all of these resources as needed. Learn steps you can take to stay safe and protect yourself and your family.
What you should know
Family violence is abusive, controlling behavior
Family violence is any kind of abusive behavior used to get power and control over a family member. It can be intentional or unintentional and can happen during a relationship or after it ends.
Family violence includes physical abuse (such as hitting a partner or child). It also includes:
- sexual abuse
- psychological abuse
- emotional or verbal abuse
- threats, including threats to harm other people or pets
- harassment, intimidation, and coercive controlling behaviours
- stalking or following
- limiting a person’s independence, including their financial independence
- damaging property
In family violence cases, anyone can be a victim, including children. Children can be victimized indirectly — that is, when they see violence happening between family members.
Family violence can occur once or often. Either way, abuse is wrong. If you’ve been abused, know this: abuse is not your fault.
Family violence can be a crime
Family violence is not only a family law problem. It’s a crime. Under Canadian law, no one is allowed to physically or sexually abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten another person. Anyone who does any of these things to you or your children can be charged with a crime. The list of possible crimes is long. It includes assault, sexual assault, criminal harassment, unlawful confinement, and uttering threats.
If you’re in immediate danger
If you think that you, your children, or others are in immediate danger from your partner, there is help available.
Call the police
First, call the police by dialing 9-1-1. The police will usually act quickly. They’ll ensure that you, your children, and others are safe.
The police can also gather evidence and suggest further options. They may, for example, recommend criminal charges or a peace bond. They may also suggest you ask for a protection order in Family Court. These steps can keep you safe by limiting your partner’s contact with you. These options are discussed below.
Contact community services
The police can also connect you to community services. This might include helping you find emergency shelter. You and your children might be able to stay in a nearby transition house for several days or weeks. This will give you time to find a new, safer place to live.
Going to a transition house, a safe house, or another emergency shelter won’t compromise your right to return home. The immediate priority, though, is your and your children’s safety.
In a moment, we highlight key community services that can help.
If you aren’t in immediate danger
If you aren’t in immediate danger, you may still be afraid for your safety, and at the same time afraid to leave the relationship. There may be many different reasons for this. You may be:
- someone who is in a cycle of violence
- financially dependent on your partner
- worried about losing your children
- worried about losing your home and having nowhere to go
- discouraged by family or community members from reporting the abuse
- isolated and have few social supports
- unsure of your legal rights or the social services that can help you
Whether you want to stay in your relationship or not, you can get help. A counsellor or a victim support worker can meet with you to talk about the family violence and provide emotional support. They can also help develop a safety plan. This way you and your children can stay safe while you’re in the relationship or if you leave.
Some people have insurance that might pay some of the cost of counselling through their work. (For example, through an extended health benefit plan or employee-assistance program.) If not, there are other services that are free. You don’t always have to pay. Speaking to a counsellor or a support worker can help. The two of you can decide the next steps for you and your children.
|Making a safety plan
Legal Aid BC explains what's involved in making a safety plan for yourself and your family.
Community services are available to help
These community and healthcare services can help with counselling and support.
VictimLinkBC is a 24-hour information and helpline for victims of family violence. Operators give support and information. Call 1-800-563-0808 (toll-free in BC) or visit their website.
Battered Women’s Support Services offers crisis support and counselling. Contact them if you’ve been abused in an intimate relationship. Call 604-687-1867 (Lower Mainland) or 1-855-867-1868 (toll-free in BC), or visit their website.
Vancouver & Lower Mainland Multicultural Family Support Services offers counselling for victims of family violence and also for children who witness abuse. Translators are available for police or court interviews. Call 1-888-436-1025 (toll-free) or visit their website.
BC Society of Transition Houses offers safe temporary shelter for women and children fleeing family violence. You can stay up to 30 days. They also offer group and individual counselling for children and youth who witness family conflicts and violence. Call 604-669-6943 (Lower Mainland) or 1-800-661-1040 (toll-free in BC), or visit their website.
Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter operates a transition house for women and their children. They also have a 24-hour crisis line for women trying to prevent or escape family violence. Call 604-872-8212 (Lower Mainland) or visit their website.
QMUNITY provides free counselling and support groups to the LGBTQ+ community. Call 604-684-5307 (Lower Mainland) or visit their website.
If you contact the police
If you contact the police to report family violence, they’ll investigate. This involves taking a statement from you, your partner, and any witnesses. The police will consider whether to recommend a criminal charge. If so, they’ll prepare a report for a government lawyer, called Crown counsel.
Crown counsel will review the police report. They’ll decide whether your partner should be charged with a crime (such as assault). If so, your partner will be arrested.
Most people who are charged are released on bail
Most people charged with a crime don’t stay in jail after their arrest. They’re usually released on bail, on conditions ordered by a judge. A condition might be, for example, that they have no contact with you. They’re not allowed to come to your home, work, or school. If they break their bail order, you can tell the police, who can arrest and charge them.
If you and your children want to resume contact with your partner, or want to stop the criminal court process, you’ll need to first talk to Crown counsel about changing the bail order conditions.
If there is a criminal trial
If your partner is charged with a criminal offence, they might decide to plead guilty. A guilty plea means they accept responsibility for the offence. So there’s no trial. But if they choose to plead not guilty, a trial will be held in criminal court.
At trial, you’ll testify under oath or affirmation. That means telling the judge the truth about what happened.
If your partner is found guilty of assaulting or threatening you, they’ll be sentenced. If they have no prior criminal record, they may not go to jail. Instead, they might be given a fine, or placed on probation with conditions such as to have no contact with you or to attend counselling.
You can get a court order to protect yourself
You can get a court order to protect yourself and your family from family violence. You can seek a criminal law peace bond or a family law protection order — or both.
Anyone can ask for a peace bond, but only family members can apply for a protection order. Family members include, for example, your partner, your child’s parent or guardian, and a relative of yours who lives with you.
A peace bond is a criminal court order that usually lasts for a full year. However, it can take several weeks to get a peace bond in place.
You can contact the police for help in getting a peace bond. If they agree you have a reasonable fear for your safety, they can recommend a peace bond to Crown counsel, who can put the recommendation before a judge. Or, if you’re already in the middle of a criminal court process, your partner may agree to enter into a peace bond voluntarily — in exchange for Crown counsel dropping any criminal charges against them. The deal will come with certain conditions. Your partner agrees to “keep the peace” and, typically, not contact you for a certain length of time.
If your partner follows the peace bond conditions, your partner will avoid getting a criminal record. If they don’t follow the peace bond conditions, they can be charged. Then, they’ll have to deal with the original criminal charge plus a new charge for not following the peace bond. See our information on peace bonds for more on this process.
Family law protection orders
A protection order is another option to help you stay safe. It’s typically quicker and easier to get than a peace bond. (In Provincial Court, you may be able to get one on the same day.) You apply for this order under the BC Family Law Act. It can set out conditions your partner must follow. These might include:
- how much, if any, contact they can have with you (and sometimes how they can communicate with you)
- not going to your home, school, or workplace
- not stalking (or following) you
- not possessing weapons
A protection order can also require the police to:
- remove your partner from the home
- escort them while they gather up their belongings
- take away their weapons
A protection order can also require your partner to report to the court.
How do I apply for a family law protection order?
Anyone at risk of family violence can apply for a family law protection order. You can apply on your own, or a lawyer can help you.
If you’re afraid for your safety, you can apply for a protection order without having to notify your partner. You can apply in either BC Supreme Court or Provincial Court (which is sometimes called Family Court). In Family Court, there are no filing fees, and you may find the paperwork easier. On the other hand, if you also want to ask for a divorce or division of property, it might be more efficient to apply in Supreme Court. (Only BC Supreme Court can make decisions about division of property and divorce.)
In either court, along with your request for protection, you’ll need to file an affidavit. In it, you describe what happened and what your concerns are. (This is a legal document; you must tell the truth.)
Legal Aid BC’s Family Law in BC website has a free step-by-step guide for applying for a protection order in Provincial Court.
How does a protection order or peace bond affect my family case?
Family violence can affect a court’s decisions about guardianship, parenting arrangements, or contact with a child. A court has to make decisions in the best interests of the child, and any threat or history of coercive control or family violence can make a difference. The court must consider whether there’s a child protection case or a criminal court case happening, and if any protection orders or peace bonds are in place when making decisions about parenting children. A person who is responsible for family violence could see their parenting privileges restricted or cut altogether.
What if a protection order conflicts with another family court order?
If you get a protection order (or even a Criminal Code order), and there’s already a parenting order in place that says something different, a few things will change. The parts of the parenting order that conflict with the protection order are suspended. For example, say there’s an existing order about parenting time. But the new protection order forbids all contact with the children. This new order trumps the old one. No time with the children will be allowed.
What if my partner pressures me to drop the criminal charges?
It’s not up to you to drop the charges. You didn’t even lay the charges against your partner in the first place — Crown counsel did. If your partner pressures you to drop the charges — or tries to contact you — you can report them to the police or Crown counsel.
What if my partner ignores a protection order?
If they do, and they continue to contact or harass you, they can be arrested. And charged with a criminal offence. They may be brought before the court. If they’re found to have breached the protection order, they can be fined, placed on probation, or put in jail.
Who can help
Free and low-cost legal help
Legal Aid BC provides free legal help to people who can’t afford a lawyer. This is important: when you apply, tell them if you’re in crisis and fear violence from your partner.
- Call 604-408-2172 (in the Lower Mainland)
- Call 1-866-577-2525 (toll-free)
- Visit website
Other options for free legal help include pro bono services, legal clinics, and advocates. See our information on free and low-cost legal help.
The BC government’s Victim Services Directory provides contact information for service providers across BC that assist women and children impacted by violence.
With more information
Legal Aid BC’s Family Law in BC website includes extensive information on family violence.
Clicklaw’s JP Boyd on Family Law wikibook also has a lot of information about family violence.
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