Michael Ford (post until Oct. 31/19)
Criminal

False domestic abuse allegations cause long-standing trauma

Sometimes people falsely accused of domestic abuse never recover from the trauma, says Toronto criminal lawyer Joseph Neuberger.

A recent ruling saw a woman sentenced to 60 days in jail for a bogus claim that her ex-spouse choked and tried to rape her in 2015. Her lies resulted in the man spending 19 days in jail before she recanted her claim, reports the National Post

“When you did what you did, you not only hurt (the ex-spouse), you hurt every real victim out there, every real complainant,” Ontario Court Justice Karen Lische told the woman, the Post reported. 

Neuberger, a partner with Neuberger & Partners LLP, tells AdvocateDaily.com ,“The judge in this case aptly noted that such false accusations damage the integrity of the justice process and may impede vulnerable complainants from coming forward.”

Domestic or intimate partner violence is considered the most common form of violence against women. Yet bogus accusations during separations are far more common than many believe, he says. 

"I run across this all the time," Neuberger says. “Cases going to trial in the face of implausible evidence comprise a good portion of my practice.

“The family courts are sensitive to issues of domestic violence, and mere allegations derail custody and access, and a former spouse can seek compensatory spousal support based on an alleged history of abuse even though it is deemed irrelevant under The Divorce Act.”

In the case cited, the woman did the right thing and came forward recanting her accusations, says Neuberger, who comments generally and was not involved in the matter. 

"However, the complainants often do not recant and cases proceed to trial," he says. "The emotions in family domestic proceedings are sometimes extremely high and can be irrational, resulting in real damage to people." 

Neuberger, who has defended more than 700 domestic-related charges during his 24-year career, says in many of those cases he has uncovered instances of misleading evidence and fabrication by complainants. 

"The motive to lay a false accusation against a former spouse, whether the accused is male or female, is often motivated by a misguided need for revenge, to gain leverage in a family court proceeding, or to thwart custody and access to children," he says.

Between the charge and the trial, "there is catastrophic damage" for the wrongfully accused, Neuberger says. That damage includes bail conditions, restricted access to children, and some people are pushed to the point of just walking away from claiming visitation rights. 

"Your life is in a total upheaval. You're living away from your home … and now access to your kids is cut off," Neuberger says. "It's devastating and the courts are looking at you as an abuser.

"The immediate damage is catastrophic, and most times, irreparable." 

Relationships with children could be harmed, "and the financial, emotional and psychological impact is enough for some spouses to commit suicide."

Neuberger says one of his clients, after seven unsubstantiated claims of abuse involving his ex-wife and her parents "just gave up and killed himself," he says. "He jumped from the 23rd floor of his condo." 

Neuberger says it's impossible to compensate those who have been wrongfully accused of abuse in domestic cases. 

But if police were given greater latitude in investigations, it could reduce the number of wrongful accusations proceeding, he says. 

"The mandatory policies for police to lay charges in domestic cases limits their discretion. Mandatory prosecution doesn't help," Neuberger says. "Greater discretion for police to investigate is necessary to try and prevent such miscarriages of justice."  

Despite his faith in the judicial process, he says there's "no perfect system" that would prevent the possibility of false allegations.

“Because of the discourse out there about victims of violence, whether they are domestic assaults or sexual assaults, we need to be very careful not to swing so far to the other side that trials no longer become impartial and fair," he says.

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