Many more women seeking legal advice in wake of #MeToo: Grace
By Kirsten McMahon, Managing Editor
When Toronto civil sexual abuse lawyer Elizabeth Grace started developing her “niche” practice 25 years ago, her inspiration was in large part to help women who disproportionately suffer from sexual misconduct and assault.
“I thought I would have a large clientele of women, but over the years, I would have to say the majority of my plaintiff clients have been male. Since the #MeToo movement gained momentum, there's been a huge increase in the number of women reaching out for legal advice and assistance, and recent high-profile cases have really emboldened women to come forward and break their silence,” she says.
Grace, a partner with Lerners LLP, shared her insights during a panel discussion at the recent Annual Diversity Conference presented by the Ontario Bar Association and the Roundtable of Diversity Association.
During the session, Grace, and lawyers Jennifer Mathers McHenry and Danielle Robitaille, led a substantive discussion on sexual assault and misconduct issues, and talked about the nature of their respective practices and the impacts of the #MeToo movement they have observed. They also reviewed advances and challenges in the criminal, civil and employment contexts.
Grace, who has been practising in the area of sexual abuse and misconduct for about 25 years, talked about how her work as a civil litigator regularly intersects with other legal systems — including criminal, administrative and regulatory.
“This makes the work really interesting," she adds when speaking with AdvocateDaily.com.
Panellists were asked if they represent one or both sides in sexual misconduct and assault matters.
“Although this area of law tends to be really polarized — with lawyers practising on one side or the other — all three of the panellists said they work with both those accused of committing the misconduct and with victims,” Grace says. She points out that the defence of these kinds of cases can also extend to representing employers and organizations “who are alleged to have enabled or otherwise facilitated the sexual assault or harassment in question."
“I have always done plaintiff-side work, but within the last decade or so, I've done more defence-side work, primarily for institutions like children's aid societies, school boards and municipalities, but occasionally also for individuals," Grace says.
Individuals involved on the defence side are not always the alleged perpetrators of the abuse, she explains. They can also include parents of children who were abused and who are brought into the litigation by defendants on the basis that their actions or inactions somehow contributed to the abuse occurring.
Grace spoke on the panel about some of the benefits of acting on both sides in this area.
"It gives you a better viewpoint and understanding of the different perspectives. I think it makes us better lawyers and advocates and helps humanize the other party if you've worked with both victims and accused persons,” she says. “I think you’re less jaded, less quick to rush to judgment and more ready to be open-minded.”
Of course, it presents challenges too, including managing conflicts and dealing with potential distrust from clients who may be uneasy knowing you have acted in other cases on the opposite side. However, “good and open communication” will generally convince a potential client that having a broader perspective and experience is a good thing, says Grace.
The panellists all agreed they still very much encounter stereotypes and discrimination in their work in the sexual misconduct area. Grace offers some examples based on her experience working in the civil justice system.
“Unlike the criminal context where you have a judge who presides over a preliminary inquiry, in civil cases where you have examinations for discovery, there's no judicial arbitrator overseeing the process, and it's a bit like the wild west,” she explains.
“It’s not infrequent to encounter questions that are informed by problematic assumptions and stereotypes. There can also be discriminatory stereotypes that come in under the guise of exploring damages,” Grace says.
“For example, if we say a victim has lost income and their ability to work has been impaired because of the abuse they suffered, if it’s a female or indigenous client, statistics based on historical injustices will be used to lower the value of their loss.”
She adds that she has also encountered problematic assumptions about consent. For example, if a young male has been abused by an older female such as a teacher, “there's an assumption that it couldn't have been too bad."