A Brampton judge has ordered a man to pay his ex-wife $150,000 in damages for a 16-year pattern of abuse, including beatings, withholding money and verbal cruelty, a decision experts say opens a new legal path to recognize the “uniquely harmful” impact of family violence.
“These patterns can be cyclical and subtle, and often go beyond assault and battery to include complicated and prolonged psychological and financial abuse,” Superior Court Justice Renu Mandhane concluded in her recent decision. In general, existing law focuses on specific incidents, while the “family violence” approach focuses on long-term, harmful patterns of conduct that are designed to control or terrorize, she wrote.
In practice, one beating at the beginning of a marriage can create an imminent threat of daily violence, she wrote, which is what happened in the case before her, where she found that the man first severely beat his wife upon returning to India after their honeymoon in 2000.
After the couple moved to Canada in 2002, the man “preyed” on his wife’s vulnerability as a racialized newcomer; assaulted and demeaned her, leaving her with lasting mental health disabilities; controlled their bank accounts; and left her and their children with no access to money when he left them in 2016, Mandhane wrote.
Over 16 years he “created a situation where it was practically impossible for the Mother to leave the relationship or pursue accountability,” she wrote.
Experts say the decision is precedent-setting and offers a new pathway for survivors of family violence to seek fair compensation in the civil courts.
“It has taken us so long to come to this point in our understanding of family violence and our understanding of experiences of violence, power and domination in relationships,” said Deepa Mattoo, the executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a legal clinic that serves survivors of intimate partner violence. The decision “is going to move the needle in the right direction,” she said.
Nicholas Bala, a professor at Queen’s University specializing in family law, said the decision consolidates several existing areas of law — including the recently added definition of family violence in the federal Divorce Act — making it more consistent and easier for litigants, lawyers and judges to apply in the future.
“It’s an instance of progress in a very long story of trying to deal with these cases more effectively,” he said.
The case involved a couple with two children who got married in India in 1999 and moved to Canada in 2002. The Star is not identifying them because the case includes allegations of sexual assault. The woman could not be reached for comment Thursday and the man’s lawyer did not respond.
The couple separated in 2016 after the woman went to India against her husband’s wishes. After the man left, Mandhane found that he closed their joint bank accounts and cancelled her credit card, knowing that she and the children were reliant on him as the only source of income.
Later that year, the man filed a court application over custody and property issues; the woman responded seeking child and spousal support as well damages for physical and mental abuse throughout their marriage.
In her decision, Mandhane said that in her view, the first assault “was designed to condition the mother to her new reality: that the Father was prone to angry outbursts when intoxicated; that he would meet challenges to his authority with physical violence; and that his family would condone the violence.”
The woman’s mother also told her to stay in the relationship and said that it would be better after they had a child, Mandhane wrote. “Her mother’s motto for marriage was: ‘Stay quiet, stay happy.’”
The physical violence was accompanied by psychological abuse, including “insulting and belittling the mother about her appearance and her difficulties conceiving” and threats to leave her and the children penniless, Mandhane wrote. He would also subject her to “silent treatment” until she “complied with demands for sexual intercourse,” she wrote.
The father denied assaulting or sexually assaulting the mother and denied that he was controlling, Mandhane said.
The $150,000 award — most of which is to be paid from the sale of their Brampton home — takes into account the mental health disabilities the mother developed due to the abuse she endured, including depression and anxiety, Mandhane wrote.
The damages also send a message condemning the man’s conduct, she said, though the amount of punitive damages was reduced because the man faces pending criminal charges of assault.
It is remarkable that the woman, who was initially represented by a lawyer, completed the case self-represented, Mattoo said. “Kudos to this mother who was able to advocate for herself in this way, but it really worries me how many more are there out there.”
It is a problem Mandhane highlighted in her ruling, noting that family violence — including financial control — can make it extremely difficult for someone leaving an abusive relationship to go to court.