Lockdowns, restrictions, and other public health measures have been essential in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and in protecting our most vulnerable citizens. While collective efforts keep us and others safe from COVID-19, it creates an isolating and unsafe situation for individuals living with an abusive partner or family member. The restrictions can ultimately isolate vulnerable individuals and can limit opportunities for them to safely leave a dangerous situation.
Both the EPS and RCMP have seen increased calls relating to domestic violence during the pandemic, which generally occurs following a public health crisis or economic downturn, both of which we are currently experiencing. Despite the increased calls to law enforcement, there has been a decrease in calls and use of many Alberta emergency shelters. The decrease in use of emergency shelters does not reflect a decrease in domestic violence, rather a decrease in victims feeling safe or comfortable reaching out. This can likely be attributed to the fear of contracting COVID-19, constant messaging to stay home, and increased isolation and/or increased surveillance by abusive partners or family members. Despite the decrease in calls to and use of emergency shelters in Alberta, they remain open with COVID-19 precautions.
In addition to shelters, an option available to victims of family violence is an Emergency Protection Order, or “EPO”, which is a civil order under the Protection Against Family Violence Act (Alberta). EPOs are court orders that prevent a family member from contacting the victim and can prevent a family member from attending a victim’s school, work, or other places. EPOs allow victims of family violence to obtain an order on an ex-parte basis, which means without giving notice to the abusive family member. EPOs are granted when there has been family violence and the victim has reason to believe that the respondent will continue or resume carrying out the violence, and due to the seriousness or urgency, the order should be granted to provide immediate protection to the victim and other family members who reside with the victim. In some instances, EPOs can grant the victim exclusive occupation of the home for a specified period of time.
EPOs are police enforceable and must be reviewed by the Court of Queen’s Bench within nine days of the order being granted. Upon review, the court can direct that the EPO be revoked, the EPO be confirmed, or the EPO be revoked and replaced with a Queen’s Bench Protection Order. Alternatively, the court may require that an oral hearing be held.
Alberta Courts have updated the process by which individuals can seek EPOs in order to make them more accessible during the pandemic. Notably, the requirement under the Protection Against Family Violence Act that EPOs be made in person has been suspended and applications can now be made over the phone. Moreover, EPOs can now be made by phone through the Provincial Hearing Office when there is no Provincial Court Judge available.
Further information regarding the EPO COVID-19 procedures can be found here.
Anyone in immediate danger should call 911. The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters confidential hotline is 1-866-331-3933. Further supports can be found here. If you require legal advice, we recommend you contact our Family Law Practice Group via phone or email.
This article was written by Sarah McFayden, a student-at-law at McCuaig Desrochers LLP.
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