B.C.’s child watchdog fears police agencies could be caught off-guard by an increase in domestic violence cases once the new Family Law Act gets proclaimed this month.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, said the law will place greater responsibility on police departments to enforce orders that protect victims — primarily women and children — from unwanted contact or harassment by their abusers.
“I see very quickly on the horizon an influx of new cases where we need people at the ready, and I don’t feel that there’s been adequate planning to prepare for that on the policing side,” she said.
The law, which comes into force March 18, makes it a criminal offence to breach a protection order. In the past, restraining orders fell under civil law and spotty enforcement was identified as a “critical justice system failure,” Justice Ministry documents show.
“Use of the Criminal Code to enforce protection orders will promote timely, effective enforcement, which can save lives. It streamlines enforcement and limits it to the criminal justice system, where the police and Crown counsel are familiar with the process and tools. It sends the message that breaches of protection orders will be taken seriously.”
Breaches of orders issued under child protection law will also be treated as crimes.
Saanich police said Thursday that it is too soon to know how the changes will affect the department’s workload.
“It is not known at this time how the judges will interpret what will be required to issue a protection order and what threshold will need to be met,” Sgt. Steve Eassie said.
It’s possible police will deal with fewer breaches of protection orders if people realize they could face criminal charges, he said.
“I think only time will tell.”
Eassie said Saanich places a priority on domestic violence cases and will make whatever changes are necessary to adequately respond. Officers will undergo special training to better understand the law and any responsibilities that come with it.
Justice Minister Shirley Bond said the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police was reminded of the coming changes at a recent meeting.
“They are responsible for ensuring their officers are aware of the legislation and apply it appropriately,” she said in a statement.
“I expect they will manage their resources accordingly.”
Bond said the law will ultimately improve public safety.
“The creation of a new protection order under the Criminal Code provides police with certainty about how they should respond to calls involving safety,” she said. “It makes it clear that these are urgent calls and lives could be at stake.”
Turpel-Lafond expressed concern this week that the new law takes effect at a time when the Victoria Police Department has pulled one of two officers out of the regional domestic violence unit. The cutback has resulted in the remaining three officers handling fewer high-risk cases than in the past.
“My concern with the Victoria unit is that it’s been a success, it’s done good work and it seems to have been almost penalized for its success by losing a member when we should be looking at expanding it,” she said.
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