Applications for emergency protection orders have risen by 17 per cent in the last four years.
EDMONTON—Alberta continues to see a spike in family violence, with emergency protection order (EPO) applications up 17 per cent since 2018.
Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) staff lawyers working within the Emergency Protection Order Program (EPOP) report 2,267 opened files in the 2021-22 year alone.
“The majority of individuals filing EPOs are women, and most of those are women with young children,” said Christina Riddoch, staff lawyer at Legal Aid Alberta’s Edmonton office. “They’re trying to escape an abusive husband or boyfriend – a situation that may have been exacerbated by isolation requirements or stay-at-home orders during the pandemic.
“Financial strain, job loss, the cost of living – this can all lead to the emergence of family violence.”
The Legal Aid Alberta Emergency Protection Order Program (EPOP) operates out of both Edmonton and Calgary to assist courts by equipping them with front-line staff lawyers who can assess a person’s request for an EPO and help them with their application.
An EPO is an order provided by the courts that helps protect individuals and their children from family violence. These orders require violent family members to stay away from or stop contacting the claimant, which often means the abuser must move out of the shared family home.
While majority of EPO requesters are women, Riddoch does see claimants who are men. Most of those men, she noted, have been elderly – something she is starting to see much more of.
“Elder abuse is becoming more of an issue. We’re seeing an increase in situations where an adult child or stepchild is abusing their elderly parent – something that could be the result of the cost of living becoming harder to manage. So, we’ve been working in tandem with support services for elder abuse victims to try and help get these vulnerable people out of these situations.”
A continuous rise in applications
While businesses have started opening back up and people are beginning to venture back into public spaces, Riddoch says things aren’t slowing down for the LAA EPOP team.
“When I started at Legal Aid Alberta back in 2007, assisting with EPO applications, I was seeing maybe four or five a day. Now, we’re seeing up to 14 EPO reviews per day. That’s exponential.”
Given the increase in requests for these emergency protection orders, the courts have opened an Urgent Matters Chamber where lawyers are given 90 minutes for EPO reviews as opposed to just 30 minutes.
“We’re busier than ever,” said Riddoch. “And I would say we’re on track to see another increase this year.”
An increase in danger, not just numbers
Shilpi Walia, an LAA staff lawyer in Calgary said that when assessing EPO applications, lawyers and front-line staff use a category scale to assess how much danger a person might be in.
“There’s a four-tier scale: variable danger, increased danger, severe danger and extreme danger,” explained Walia.
“Over the last year, we have seen an increase in extreme danger cases.”
For a situation to be marked as ‘extreme danger,’ Walia said that weapons will usually be involved, and/or instances of physical and/or sexual abuse.
“The most common form of physical abuse I see that results in an ‘extreme danger’ assessment is assault by strangulation – extreme danger because if claimants aren’t given support, this is something that could easily turn in to a fatality.”
Addressing the problem
LAA’s Emergency Protection Order Program, established in Edmonton in 2004 and Calgary in 2007, provides EPO claimants with a duty counsel lawyer to represent them in court throughout the EPO application and confirmation process. Because applying for an EPO can be an overwhelming, emotionally charged and confusing process, EPOP helps reduce those barriers.
Riddoch said, however, that while Legal Aid Alberta is helping provide easier access to justice for victims of abuse, it’s really a group effort.
“We’re a team – LAA, police officers and RCMP, crown prosecutors, family violence service providers. We’re all working together for the best outcome for the claimant and all Albertans.
“All of us have the same stake in this: to one day end family violence.”
For more information about the Legal Aid Alberta Emergency Protection Order Program (EPOP), visit the website.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911.
About Legal Aid Alberta
Legal Aid Alberta is a not-for-profit organization that provides legal representation and support for Albertans facing legal issues.
LAA provides legal services to clients in support of fairness in Alberta’s justice system – services that help ensure Albertans in all circumstances can understand and defend their legal rights.