‘Keira’s Law’ passes the Senate, signaling a change to the way courts approach domestic violence

A private member’s bill requiring that judges consider domestic violence and coercive control when issuing decisions passed the Senate on Tuesday evening.

Bill C-233, which was sponsored by Liberal MP Anju Dhillon, was introduced in February 2022. It was dubbed “Keira’s Law” after four-year-old Keira Kagan, who was found dead with her father at the bottom of a cliff outside of Toronto in 2020.

Keira’s mother, Jennifer Kagan-Viater, said at a press conference on Wednesday morning that she tried to call attention to the danger her daughter’s father presented to their child well before their death.

She said she went to court to seek protection for Keira from the violent and coercive behavior of her ex-husband Robin Brown.

“When we went to trial in my matter, I was before a judge with a background in labor and employment law and he cut me off on the stand when I was talking about domestic violence and parenting and the effect on our daughter.” said Kagan-Viater.

“[The judge] said domestic violence is not relevant to parenting.”

Kagan-Viater had been separated from Brown for years before her daughter’s death.

Keira Kagan, 4, was found dead at the base of an Ontario cliff after allegedly going for a hike with her father, Robin Brown, whose body was also found nearby.  Her mother, Jennifer Kagan-Viater and stepfather, Philip Viater, believe it was a murder-suicide.
Keira Kagan, 4, was found dead at the base of an Ontario cliff after allegedly going for a hike with her father, Robin Brown, whose body was also found nearby. Her mother, Jennifer Kagan-Viater and stepfather, Phillip Viater, believe it was a murder-suicide. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

She has told CBC News that she believes her daughter’s death was the result of a murder-suicide and that her warnings about her ex-husband’s abuse were largely ignored by judges.

A pending inquest into Keira’s death was announced in February by Ontario’s chief coroner.

“We need to see a change in a way that judges understand domestic violence and coercive control, and this bill brings about that change,” said Kagan-Viater.

Bill C-233 would amend the Judges Act to establish seminars for judges on intimate partner violence and coercive control, in addition to other forms of education they must undergo.

Pamela Cross is a lawyer and advocacy director at Luke’s Place, which provides legal guidance to women leaving abusive relationships. She said she hopes the bill will lead to standardized education for judges on the effects of intimate partner violence on children.

She said judges who hear cases where family violence is a factor should be well-educated about how domestic violence works, how it affects children and how often it continues after separation. She said “Keira’s Law” is a good step in this direction.

An important aspect of Bill C-233, said Cross, is its focus on coercive control — a pattern of abusive behavior that isolates a victim and causes them to lose their sense of autonomy.

Cross said that cases of coercive control may not involve physical violence. They may instead involve emotional abuse, psychological abuse, gaslighting, or financial abuse, she added.

Keira Kagan in a shirt that was gifted to her.  it reads: "I can change the world."
Keira Kagan in a T-shirt bearing the message, “I can change the world.” (Jennifer Kagan-Viater)

Cross said Kagan-Viater’s experience is not uncommon.

Too often, he said, women go to court after being abused by their partners and are not trusted by judges — or judges fail to make the connection between intimate partner violence and its effects on children.

“Once this bill is fully implemented, judges should have more tools in their toolkit so that they can look at these cases and make decisions that are best for children and that also keep mothers safe,” said Cross.

Pam Damoff, one of the Liberal MPs spearheading the bill, said “Keira’s Law” may inspire similar legislation at the provincial level.

“Keira was going to change the world and we’re here today because she has changed the world. She is starting conversations, not only with our bills federally but across the country,” said Damhoff.

Along with amending the Judges Act, the bill also amends the Criminal Code to allow a judge to consider ordering someone charged with intimate partner violence to wear an electronic monitoring device if they think the individual may pose a safety or security risk.

Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks, another supporter of the bill, said the option of electronic monitoring, paired with new training on intimate partner violence and coercive control, will give judges “a comprehensive toolbox of understanding” for dealing with these types of cases.

“We want to make sure that Keira’s legacy is one that will protect more children in the future,” said Saks.

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