Up to 400 women and youth use Bryony Houses outreach services each year.
Changes to the Residential Tenancies Act don’t do nearly enough to protect women.
That’s the response from advocates to recent changes that allow victims of domestic violence to get out of their leases early.
“I am hopeful it’ll be useful, but I do have concerns,” says Pamela Harrison, provincial coordinator for the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia. “The criteria that women have to meet [to get out of their leases] are extraordinarily high.”
Starting Sept. 16, victims of domestic violence can end their leases with only a month’s notice without facing further financial penalties. Normally tenants would be required to give three months notice, or be responsible for the rent owing on the remaining lease.
To be eligible for that relief, applicants must first file a domestic violence complaint with police and obtain an emergency protection order (EPO).
According to Laurie Ehler, executive director of Bryony House, applications for EPOs are rejected so often and arbitrarily that the women’s shelter no longer views them as a readily available tool for those in crisis.
“To be frank, we don’t apply for them that often, anymore,” Ehler says, mentioning a recent EPO rejection involving a woman assaulted by her partner after stating she wanted a divorce.
“One of the comments [on the rejection] was that assault was an understandable response to that information,” Ehler says.
Approval for the orders is “nearly impossible” when children are involved, says Ehler, who feels justices will simply defer the matter to Family Court.
“But often times women are looking for emergency protection until they can get into Family Court.”
Joanne Bernard, Liberal candidate for Dartmouth North, says applying for the judicial orders is “a crapshoot.”
The executive director for Alice Housing and former board member of Bryony House says she’s seen countless women turned down for EPOs in the last decade.
“Having it as a requirement for a director of victim services to sign off on is really just an extra roadblock.”
The recent changes in legislation were first announced in November 2012 after being recommended in a 2009 report by the Metro Interagency Committee on Family Violence. Bernard and Harrison co-chaired that committee.
“Procedural wise, it could be a little more streamlined for women,” Bernard says of the changes. “Adding an extra layer of bureaucracy for a woman that just wants to get out of a lease and leave violence wasn’t my intention when I made these recommendations.”
Adding to the problem, Bernard notes that many women don’t want to involve police or the courts for fear of violent reprisal from their partners.
“They just want out,” she says. “Sometimes it’s safer for some women to just walk away. By having all these requirements in this legislation, it just makes it more difficult.”
The changes in the Residential Tenancies Act are based on similar legislation in Manitoba. Harrison says that in the 17 months the legislation has been enacted, only eight women have been granted lease relief.
Nevertheless, she remains hopeful that an upcoming internal review of policies by the department of victim services will help loosen the restrictions on EPO approval.
“We have a good history with the Domestic Violence Intervention Act,” she says. “I think the department of justice wants it to work as well as we do.”
Anyone experiencing domestic violence and looking for assistance can contact the Department of Victim Services at 1-888-470-0773.