Mandatory Charging Is Not the Answer: Intimate Partner Violence in Canada During a Global Pandemic

January 25, 2022

Content Note: This piece evaluates the Violence Against Women in Relationships policy, and therefore deals with intimate partner violence (IPV) and the criminal justice system. This piece refers to individuals who have experienced IPV as victims or survivors, although I recognize that not everyone who experiences IPV identifies with these terms. Additionally, this piece mainly refers to women who experience IPV, however, IPV impacts people of all genders and sexualities and in no way do I mean to erase or minimize those experiences.

By Megan Bobetsis, MA Student

Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services saw a 300% increase in calls during the first three weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Other support services and police agencies saw a similar increase in calls across Canada during the pandemic’s second wave. The pandemic has introduced a new precarity into all our lives, but the physical and social isolation is placing some victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) at a heightened risk of violence. Research has already shown increases in both prevalence and severity of IPV in Canada during the pandemic, and this correlates with factors such as heightened financial precarity and more time at home while access to community supports has decreased. Add to this the patriarchal and often harmful mandatory charging policies enforced in IPV cases in BC and across Canada, and it is evident that an evaluation of mandatory arrest/charging policies is important right now.

In 1983, the Government of Canada issued directives to police agencies and Crown Counsel offices to rigorously investigate and prosecute cases of wife assault, and Canada was the first country to implement mandatory charging policies in cases of wife assault[1]. This was largely in response to feminist advocacy that raised public awareness about gendered violence. Under this political climate, the BC Violence Against Women in Relationships (VAWIR) policy was first established in 1993 and most recently updated in 2010.

In accordance with the VAWIR policy, police are to recommend charges in cases of IPV whether or not a victim wants to press charges. This means that IPV victims are not granted the individual autonomy to decide whether pressing charges will benefit their situation. Instead, police and Crown Counsel maintain the power to decide as the prevailing view is that mandatory arrest/charging will always benefit and protect the victim. I am aware that mandatory charging benefits some survivors and some situations of IPV because police intervention can reduce harm and be the best course of action for some survivors. Mandatory charging also works to reduce the blame or intimidation to not press charges that may be placed on a victim if they choose to press charges on their own. What I am arguing is that pursuing the same course of action in all cases of IPV removes the ability for victims to decide for themselves whether pressing charges is the appropriate option for them.

Each experience of IPV is unique and complex, so while mandatory charging may be helpful and make sense for one survivor it cannot be assumed to be the answer for all survivors. For example, during this pandemic, mandatory arrest/charging might mean authorities remove an abuser who then takes with them the income and financial security for the entire household. The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provided financial assistance to Canadians directly affected by COVID-19, only applied to people who were employed or self-employed (i.e., not those who perform fulltime domestic duties for their families). So, if an abusive partner financially supported the household, but was arrested based on the mandatory policies, this could potentially leave a victim of IPV in increased financial precarity. Additionally, the policy assumes that the police and criminal justice system are seen as trusted protectors by victims of IPV. This may not be the case for many victims, including those with precarious immigration status or communities that have previously experienced racist encounters with the police, and forcing a victim into the criminal justice system where they may be further marginalized can be extremely harmful.

While I recognize the intention of mandatory charging policies as taking a no tolerance approach to violence in intimate relationships and addressing the history of systemic neglect regarding violence against women, I believe that mandatory charging policies are a broad stroke approach to IPV that fails to recognize the various experiences of IPV and denies a survivor’s agency to choose how they want to be supported. The VAWIR policy states that “despite the harm that the abuse may have caused and the risk of continued or more serious harm, the dynamics of the relationship in which these crimes arise may result in the victim’s reluctance to fully engage with the police or Crown Counsel in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes” (pg. 3). Recognizing the complexities of IPV yet still denying the victim the ability to choose whether charges are pressed is contradictory. By disregarding and choosing to not value the desires of a victim of IPV, the VAWIR policy is implying police and Crown Counsel know better than the victim what would be best for them and how best to end their abuse.

Based on the lack of choice for the victim and the privileging of the police and Crown Counsel’s judgement, it’s clear that the policy upholds patriarchal views about victims of IPV in the way that they cannot be left to make their own choices and are viewed only as victims needing state protection. The mandatory nature of these policies is anything but empowering for victims because it only represents another form of control and removal of choice. If we really want to support survivors of IPV, shouldn’t we ensure they can choose how they want to be supported?

Theories of IPV in heterosexual relationships often root violence in the gendered oppression of women, and men’s use of power and control. Therefore, a policy that further exercises control over a victim is more harmful than helpful. To truly empower and support survivors of IPV, the criminal justice response needs to recognize the diversity and complexity of survivors’ needs while also acknowledging their competence in deciding their own path forward. The first step towards this should be allowing victims to choose whether they want to press charges, and fully supporting either choice. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our lives, it creates a new urgency and need to evaluate these policies as we continue to understand and work towards better supporting survivors of IPV.


Sources Used:





5.      Singh, R. (2010). In Between the System and the Margins: Community Organizations, Mandatory Charging and Immigrant Victims of Abuse. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 35(1), 31–62.

6.      Wilmshurst, S. (1997). The Violence Against Women in Relationships Policy: A Pre- and Post-Policy Examination of the Outcomes of Spousal Assault Reports in Penticton, British Columbia. Feminist Research, Education, Development and Action Centre.


[1] Wife battery/assault were common terms used at the time to refer to IPV. However, this gendered language erases the experiences of IPV in non-heterosexual relationships and IPV experienced by men in heterosexual relationships.