Breaking the Cycle of Family Violence with Calgary Legal Guidance

Ask An Expert: Sheila Pahl

By Brittany Koenig, Business Development Manager

For over half a century, Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG) has stood as a supportive pillar within the Alberta justice system to those who have nowhere else to turn. Committed to bridging the gaps and providing specialized supports to those who have been historically underserved, CLG empowers low-income and marginalized communities through free, confidential legal information, advice, and advocacy.

Over the past decade, CLG has undergone a significant evolution to address the increasing demand for specialized support, a need that's particularly evident in the realm of family violence. In response, the Domestic Violence Family Law (DVFL) Program was established. More than just providing legal advice, this program serves as an indispensable support network for victims and survivors of family violence. It helps them navigate the complexities of the legal system and connects them with essential social services.

We sat down with DVFL program lead, Sheila Pahl, who offers an insider’s perspective on CLG’s approach, the specialized supports they provide, and how the program can help to empower individuals at a critical crossroads in their lives. Join us as we delve into the meaningful work being done at the intersection of family law and advocacy against family violence.

Brittany: Can you elaborate on the DVFL program? Specifically, what types of support are available, and how do you determine eligibility for these services?

Sheila: Each program at CLG has a unique intake process. While our volunteer programs use income as a criterion, the DVFL program focuses on safety – both immediate and ongoing, and the stage of legal process for the individual. The main qualifier for our DVFL services is self-identification as a victim or survivor of family violence. This means anyone who reaches out to us and identifies as such, regardless of their situation – whether they have children or not – is eligible. Our priority is on early intervention, where the individual has not yet filed anything in court.

It's important to understand that the DVFL program offers consultation and guidance, not legal representation. But our services extend beyond just legal guidance - we emphasize empowerment and education. We aim to equip people with the necessary knowledge and resources to navigate their legal and other circumstances effectively, including risk assessments and safety planning supports.

The DVFL program lawyers and advocate can listen to someone’s concerns, help them understand their rights and options, guide them through court documents and appearances, and explain the law and legal system as it applies to an individual’s unique situation. Our advocate also assists with information, education and support where the abuser has been charged. Criminal justice system navigation for victims of family violence is another aspect of the wrap-around services offered.

Our program coordinator also plays an important role. Initially, they’ll have a conversation about the situation and needs with a client. Depending on what they require, they’ll be offered an appointment with a program lawyer, our social worker, or both. If their situation falls outside our program's scope, we strive to direct them to the most appropriate resource, whether that's another program within CLG or external supports and services. This includes guiding someone to resources like emergency shelter, counseling, housing, and government programs.

For issues centred around financial entitlements or property division, we typically refer individuals to our volunteer clinics. However, we do provide strategic advice for those in dangerous situations. Our goal is always to answer any questions, help someone understand their rights, and present options. If someone is seeking help for an issue outside our practice areas, we'll do our utmost to connect them with a suitable program or service.

Brittany: How does the DVFL program step in to provide early intervention and support?

Sheila: At the heart of the DVFL program is early intervention, targeting a crucial and often high-risk moment for individuals in violent situations—the realization that it's time to leave. Recognizing the heightened risk at this juncture, we aim to provide timely support and guidance. It's at this pivotal stage, often before any legal papers are filed or external advice is sought, that our support can be most impactful. This includes helping individuals understand their legal rights, advising them on how to appropriately document their situation, and advising on the next steps in a manner that prioritizes their safety and well-being. It's all about empowerment – equipping individuals with the tools and knowledge to make informed decisions safely. Whether it's understanding the basics of family law, learning about protective orders, or exploring safe exit strategies from their current environment, we provide the necessary information and advice to help them navigate these complexities in a safe and informed manner.

Brittany: Intersectionality refers to how different aspects of a person's identity—like gender, race, and socioeconomic status—intersect and affect their experiences, particularly in the context of supporting victims of family violence. In what ways does CLG incorporate intersectionality in its approach? How does this shape CLG's services?

Sheila: At CLG, our embrace of intersectionality is rooted in our trauma-informed and strengths-based approach. We put considerable effort into understanding the unique backgrounds, cultures, and life situations of the individuals we serve. By adopting a strengths-based approach, we naturally integrate intersectionality into our practice. It's about empowering individuals, having faith in their capacity to make decisions about their lives, and understanding those decisions in their full context.

For instance, when we encounter a client who has not yet made the decision to leave a challenging situation, it's important to respect where they are in their process. Directive lawyering, telling clients what they 'can't' or 'should' do, can backfire and increase their risk. Instead, our approach is to understand the context of each individual situation. Are they fearful or distrusting of the legal system? Will they lose the support of extended family or their community if they leave their marriage? Are they facing financial challenges or risk homelessness for them and their children if they leave? Many people face unique forms of abuse based on gender, sexuality, race, culture, religion, ability/disability, mental health, and so many other factors.

In family law, context is everything. It's not just about the law and legal procedures; it's about understanding and respecting the complexities of people's lives. By acknowledging these diverse factors and adapting our approach accordingly, we can provide more effective and empathetic support to our clients, and assist them in translating their experience in a way that will be heard and understood in a court setting, if they choose to proceed that way.

Brittany: How does a trauma-informed approach influence both the clients' experience and the professionals' work within the DVFL program?

Sheila: Trauma-informed care is central to everything we do in the DVFL program, and CLG as an organization, and it impacts us on two levels – both in how we support our clients and how we take care of ourselves as professionals.

Firstly, for lawyers and other professionals working with trauma-impacted individuals, acknowledging, and managing vicarious trauma is incredibly important. In recent years we've integrated strategies from social work, such as formal and informal debriefing, including low-impact debriefing methods that help to prevent secondary trauma during these sessions. But there are so many other things we are building into our culture, like the ability of staff to have boundaries, EAP programs, mental wellness days, vacation time you can actually take, the ability to say “no”, and a culture of compassion and open dialogue. 

Recognizing and addressing our exposure to trauma helps us maintain our well-being and effectiveness. “Self-care” and “work-life balance” are meaningless catch-phrases. A truly trauma-informed workplace is one where recognition and accommodation of the impact the work has on us psychologically and physically is written in at a policy level and modeled by senior staff.

Regarding client interactions, being trauma-informed is about understanding the neuro-biological effects of trauma, what trauma is and how it is caused, and how that can show up in an individual. It also means recognizing and respecting that every client is unique, with their own timeline and experiences. We understand that reactions to trauma vary greatly. For example, a client discussing extreme violence with a flat affect may be exhibiting a trauma response, just as much as someone who is visibly distressed. Next, it is about how we respond to those things. Being trauma-informed only matters if we are trauma-responsive. Our response is not about feeling sorry for them or trying to 'fix' them, but rather understanding and accommodating the diverse ways trauma can manifest, based on their individual life experiences.

From the very first point of contact, we do our best to implement this approach. This even extends to our physical environment – like the color of the walls at CLG, which was chosen based on trauma-informed interior design research. Since the onset of COVID-19, most of the DVFL’s client interactions have been virtual, and we now know that telephone-based service is often physically and psychologically the safer option for our clients. That is another small way for us to be trauma-responsive and client centred. Our commitment to a trauma-informed workplace remains unwavering at every step and is a never-ending learning process.

Brittany: How do you navigate the unique challenges of providing legal guidance to marginalized communities?

Sheila: Educating myself on working with diverse communities has been key. It involves being open and respecting the agency of individuals, especially when their decisions or experiences are different from my own. For instance, some may prioritize their rights and safety but choose to remain in the relationship, at least for the time-being. There are so many reasons why it may seem like the safer option to stay for that person, like a risk of escalating violence on leaving, the inability to protect children in the event they remain with the abuser or have unsupervised time with the abuser, and the many and varied intersectional factors we talked about. Usually, the lack of affordable long-term housing is a deciding factor. In those situations, we do our best to use a team/collaborative approach often including community partners so that we can support that person as best we can to be safe, without pushing them in a way that could ultimately create more risk or backfire.

For many communities, engaging with the legal system may seem risky or even futile, as they fear, often rightfully, it won't end well for them. Building trust is a crucial step, and we are still in the early stages of broader societal efforts like Truth and Reconciliation, and gender-diversity and equality. That trust depends on our willingness to learn and listen.

Our approach at CLG is to empower people with knowledge – informing them of their rights, like the right to be free from abuse, rights to family finances, and options for staying safe in their environment. It’s about listening, being open to diverse experiences, recognizing our own biases and background – how our own beliefs and context can colour the advice we give, and expectations of other people. The legal system has to work for the people using it, so we do our best to do that.

Brittany: How does the DVFL program effectively engage with victims who are hesitant or reluctant to seek help?

Sheila: For most of our clients the first step is reminding them gently that they’re talking to a lawyer. The simple act of finding us and making an appointment is a huge step forward that shows courage, resolve, and resourcefulness. And then to answer the phone when we call… that’s something we can build on. One of the most successful strategies we've employed is to avoid dictating to victims what they 'have to' or 'should' do. We recognize that every individual's journey and decision-making process is unique, especially in the context of family violence. Sometimes there is unavoidable legal advice that includes “you have to”, like showing up for a subpoena, or meeting a deadline, following court orders, etc. But by not imposing our views or personal biases on them, we create a space where they feel more in control and less pressured. This approach fosters trust and encourages them to open up and engage with the support available at their own pace. Ultimately, we aim to support people to recognize their own strengths, existing resources, and their agency to make decisions and take steps on their own.

Brittany: What are common misconceptions about domestic violence that the DVFL program seeks to address?

Sheila: There are so many misconceptions about domestic violence that we aim to debunk through the DVFL program. A few of those come to mind right now, namely:

  • Prevalence and demographics - a significant misconception is that domestic violence is rare or doesn’t happen to many people. In reality, it's a widespread issue across all demographics. It occurs in every socio-economic bracket, from multimillion-dollar homes in affluent neighborhoods to more economically challenged areas. It's not limited by income, education, or cultural background.
  • The 'normalcy' of family violence - staying in an abusive relationship is more common than people think. Victims may leave and return multiple times, choose not to involve the police, or even recant their statements, and that’s totally normal. It's normal for victims to stay in abusive relationships for various reasons, including fear, self-preservation, or concerns about homelessness and losing the ability to protect the children or losing parenting rights to the abusive parent, amongst others. The victim who calls the police, ends the relationship, and files a court application with photographic evidence and police records after the first incident of violence is a statistical anomaly.
  • Impact on children - the notion that a parent who is abusive to their partner but not directly to their children poses no risk is false. Witnessing or being exposed to abusive behavior in any way is itself abusive and harmful to children. It's critical to recognize that abusive partnering does not imply safe parenting, whether or not that abuse has been directed at the children. The Supreme Court has now acknowledged this, and I would encourage lawyers to read through Barendregt v Grebliunas, 2022 SCC 22, paras 141-147.
  • Misplaced blame and power imbalance - there's a tendency to blame or be dismissive of victims for not leaving abusive situations sooner, or calling the police, or getting a protection order, or spending their time gathering evidence of the abuse. It’s essential to understand the complexities and fears that victims face. In family law, the standard of proof is different from criminal law. A victim's affidavit – their sworn personal story is valid evidence. Recognizing the power imbalance in abusive relationships is vital, and court orders need to create boundaries to change this dynamic, but that doesn’t happen if the court doesn’t hear and understand the lived experience of the victim. So, understand what is normal in abusive situations, and take the time to get the person’s history and experience into pleadings and on the record. The Supreme Court in Barendregt v Grebliunas has recognized that victims do not have much evidence typically, but they absolutely are the experts on their own lives. That has value and translates into evidence.
  • Underestimation of risk - a common, yet critical misconception is that people in domestic violence situations often exaggerate their risk. I’ve learned that victims actually underestimate, not overestimate, their risk. To address this, our social worker conducts risk assessments to help a person gauge their level of risk.
  • Understanding abuse in legal context - in family court, understanding relationship dynamics and power imbalances is integral. This includes acknowledging that abusers can be charming and manipulative, and very successful by all accounts, making the abuse difficult to identify yet equally harmful. Taking the time to hear the client and asking a lot of questions to illuminate more insidious controlling abuse is important. Learn skills for trauma-interviewing and interviewing for gathering experiential evidence. Go through emails and text messages. Court-ordered communication strategies, like CoParenter and Our Family Wizard (OFW), can help expose abusive behaviors in a recordable way. It's about elevating the victim in the power dynamic and holding the abuser accountable.
  • Sometimes co-parenting is not an option - in cases of domestic violence, traditional approaches designed to facilitate co-parenting may not be effective, and in fact can sometimes make things a lot worse. The idea that everyone is perfectly capable of getting along and can be taught, encouraged, or court-ordered to get along will, in many cases, only perpetuate the power imbalance, leaving the victim to manage the abuser's behavior as they have always done. In early stages, court orders should focus on establishing boundaries and accountability, rather than forcing parents to work together without addressing the underlying issues. Carefully consider sole or final decision-making for the victim rather than shared decision-making in applications, and again look at managed communication and written communication to build in accountability and paper-trails. Respect and acknowledge the existence of protection orders and criminal charges and please refrain from immediately telling people they’ll have to learn to get along for the sake of the children. Often what the children need is to be safe, and to have the legal system support the creation of strong boundaries so that the safe parent can do that. With boundaries and accountability in the early stages, people are presented an opportunity to change relationships and they might do that. Then, later-on, shared parenting might be an option. That doesn’t apply in every single situation, but should be considered more often than it is.

Brittany: Considering the complex nature of domestic violence, what are some important but often overlooked aspects that the DVFL program seeks to address?

Sheila: There are so many, but there are a few that are commonly missed: An area that demands greater awareness is online safety. Many individuals don’t realize or think about the necessary steps for ensuring their digital security, like clearing their browser cache, using a private email address, and avoiding shared household computers. Precautions like these are important, particularly as the risk of violence can escalate when an abusive partner becomes aware of attempts to leave or seek protection. Online stalking is more prevalent than commonly believed – don’t underestimate the likelihood that an abusive partner is tracking someone’s whereabouts online.

Another critical but often overlooked aspect is the use of Emergency Protection Orders (EPOs). Contrary to popular belief, the Protection Against Family Violence Act does not say that a person must have been subjected to physical violence within the past 5 weeks. You do not have to have been assaulted to apply for an EPO, so long as there is a reason to believe that violence will continue or resume (and that could mean escalating from threats to physical violence based on repeated statements like “I will kill you if you try to leave me”) and that there is seriousness or urgency. It really is a forward-looking risk assessment. That risk could arise upon the other party discovering that the applicant is leaving the relationship. Threats, intimidation, control, destruction of property, abusing animals, long patterns of behavior rather than acute recent incidences, etc., can all be factors that should be considered in EPO applications. Comprehending and utilizing these legal resources and strategies is important for ensuring the safety and well-being of those involved.

Lastly, when it comes time to serve any legal documents on an abusive partner, we often recommend that clients temporarily reside in a shelter. Serving documents in a public place or delaying service entirely to prioritize reaching a safe location, can be an important safety strategy, even with a process server.

Brittany: Can you share any insights or examples demonstrating the impact of the DVFL program on the individuals you assist, while maintaining confidentiality?

Sheila: Although we don't often receive extensive feedback due to the nature of our work, the success stories we do hear are truly remarkable, particularly regarding self-representation. We've seen outstanding success with individuals who, empowered through our legal coaching and guidance, have navigated the legal system themselves. These successes often surpass the outcomes of traditional representation.

There was one case many years ago where I represented a client, and she told me afterward that by speaking for her, I inadvertently took away her opportunity to express herself and reclaim her power in court. This experience highlighted the importance of empowering clients, even in subtle ways, to take control of their situation.

One significant observation is that if someone is in an acute state of crisis or experiencing debilitating trauma, they might not be ready for court or to give instruction to a lawyer. In such cases, our focus at the DVFL program shifts to supporting their immediate needs. This might involve connecting them with medical attention, counselling or therapeutic intervention, or practical support like housing or other necessities where possible. Addressing these fundamental needs can significantly improve long-term outcomes.

Around the same time, I recall a client who, despite facing senior lawyers and language barriers, successfully represented herself in a trial where everything seemed stacked against her. With guidance from me, she was able to present evidence to the court and engage in cross examinations to illuminate the father’s abusive behavior where prior representation had not heard her and did not include it. The outcome was an incredible eye opener for me because I learned then how capable people really can be. This case underscored how empowering individuals to find their voice and agency can lead to more solid, long-term outcomes. I am exceedingly proud that it is her name, and not mine, written on the resulting judgment. She did that.

Now our focus is to help people before anything has been filed in court, and the feedback we receive from our clients has been consistently positive. When someone says to us “I felt like I had no power, and now I do”, that’s success.

If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, remember that you are not alone, and support is within reach.

For specialized family violence assistance, contact Calgary Legal Guidance online or at 403.234.9266.

Should you need immediate emotional support, The Distress Centre's 24-hour crisis line is available at 403-266-4357, or you can visit

Additional resources can be accessed any time through the Alberta Family Violence Info line – call or text 310.1818, or chat online.

Everyone has the right to live in safety and free from violence and abuse.

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