Domestic violence typically occurs behind closed doors and involves the abuse of power by the abuser. This can make it hard to report domestic violence. In this article, we outline how the process of making a complaint for domestic violence works.
Whom to contact to make a complaint
If you have experienced or witnessed domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence) and don’t know what to do, you can call the SOS domestic violence hotline at 1-800-363-9010. They offer 24/7 free bilingual assistance and can provide you with information, support, or access to a shelter. You can also visit their website.
If you need immediate help, contact 9-1-1. The dispatcher will send the police to respond as soon as possible. Anyone can call 9-1-1 to report domestic violence – a child, a neighbour, or even a stranger.
If you do not need immediate assistance but wish to file a complaint, you can contact your local police department (Quebec police directory, French only). They will tell you whether they will send an officer to meet you or whether you should go to your local department to speak to an officer.
Domestic violence is not just physical violence. It can also involve verbal, psychological, sexual, or economic violence. To learn more, see our article “What Is Domestic Violence?“.
Speaking to the police
The first step of the police investigation is to make a report. The police will record basic information, such as the date and place of the crime, the names of the people involved and a short summary of what happened.
If you called the police because you were the victim of domestic violence (you are the “complainant”), the police will also ask for your version of the facts (your statement). They will ask you questions and details about what happened.
The police can ask you or other witnesses to write down your statements. They can also write it for you and ask you to sign it.
Your statement is important for what happens next. It can be used if charges are filed against the suspect. Make sure your statement is as accurate as possible. You can always contact the police to add more information or clarify your statement later.
Your statement might be all the police need to proceed. However, you can also bring documents to support what you tell them, such as medical reports or pictures.
If you feel that you need support when you are making a complaint, you can ask a friend, family member, a case worker, or a lawyer to go with you to meet the police. The police can ask this person to wait for you outside the room where you make your statement. They can also ask the person not to speak while you’re telling them your version of what happened.
To get support for making a complaint, you can contact Crime Victims Assistance Centre (CAVAC) at 1 866 LE CAVAC (532 2822) or visit their website.
The police will decide whether to press charges
The police have special policies for crimes involving domestic violence. So, when you make a complaint about domestic violence, you can expect that the police will arrest the suspect if they find the complaint valid. However, you should know that just arresting someone does not mean that they will go to jail.
The police can decide to either detain the suspect or to release them with conditions to respect until they appear in court.
If the police decide to release the suspect, they will make the suspect promise to respect certain conditions until they appear in court. These conditions typically include not contacting you or other people involved. This can mean that the suspect will no longer be able to reside with you. If children are involved, the conditions can also include restrictions on visitation and access. If the suspect breaks these conditions, they can be charged with a crime.
If the police detain the suspect, there will be a bail hearing
If the police decide to detain the suspect, the suspect will generally appear before a judge within 24 hours for a “bail hearing” (interim release hearing). At this hearing, the judge will decide whether the suspect should remain detained until trial. If the judge orders their release, they must impose conditions that take into account the fact that domestic violence was involved. This means that they will try to impose conditions that are meant to protect you and prevent any further violence.
To learn more about what happens after someone is detained, please see our article “Bail Hearings”.
The prosecution will decide whether the suspect faces charges
Even if the police decide to file charges, this does not mean that suspect will actually face charges. First, the investigator will transfer the case to the criminal and penal prosecuting attorney (also called the prosecutor or crown prosecutor). The prosecutor then decides whether to formally charge the suspect with a crime. At this point, the suspect officially becomes the “accused”. After charges are authorized, you’ll receive a letter with the accused’s name and the charges. This process can take several days, weeks, or even months.
To learn more, please see our article “Deciding Whether to Charge a Suspect With a Crime: The Prosecutor’s Role”
If you withdraw your complaint, the accused might still face charges
Like the police, prosecutors have special rules for cases involving domestic violence. One of the most important policies involves what happens when a complainant wants to withdraw their complaint.
You can withdraw your complaint before or after charges are authorized by the prosecutor. However, the decision of whether to continue with a trial or not belongs to the prosecutor. The prosecutor will examine the case and see if they believe it’s possible to convince a judge of the accused’s guilt even if you don’t testify at trial. If so, the prosecutor will attempt to bring the case to trial without calling you as a witness.
In general, the prosecutor will not try to force you to testify if you tell them you don’t want to pursue your complaint. The prosecutor will meet with you to make sure you are not being pressured or threatened and explain the importance of testifying. In very rare cases, the prosecutor may ask you to explain to a judge why you do not wish to testify.