Report on sentencing for manslaughter in cases involving intimate relationships

Literature Review and Statistical Information

Literature Review

In December 2001, the Department of Justice Canada's Research and Statistics Division published a report entitled Examination of Declining Intimate Partner Homicide Rates: A Literature Review. This report provided an overview of social science research on intimate partner homicide, and also looked at various explanations for the trend of declining numbers. A summary of the research follows.

The report noted that the incidence of spousal 1 homicide in Canada began to decline in the 1960s or 1970s. It also demonstrated that men and women who are killed by or who kill intimate partners come from all walks of life. However, some groups are at greater risk, notably females in general and younger and Aboriginal women in particular. Additional risk factors include:

  1. a history of violence in a previous intimate relationship;
  2. common-law relationships;
  3. separation or divorce;
  4. the presence of guns;
  5. alcohol abuse; and
  6. pregnancy.

There is little Canadian literature on declines in spousal homicide and violent crime generally, so American studies were relied upon to examine possible explanations for the apparently declining numbers. However, some of the general findings from this examination were applied to Canada in the report:

  1. Extensive changes to Canada's gun control legislation may have contributed to the decline, since some of these changes were meant to address spousal violence.
  2. Although there has been a major effort in the United States in recent years to imprison more offenders, this has not been the case in Canada. A review of seven recent U.S.-based studies that examined the effect of prison growth on the homicide rate found that three of them showed little or no impact and in the remaining four, there was a negative association. Since most intimate partner homicides are considered to be "crimes of passion," most authorities believe that crime control strategies, including imprisonment, have little or no deterrent effect on these crimes; the perpetrators rarely consider possible consequences.
  3. Several U.S.-based studies have shown that improved economic conditions have a greater impact on reducing the incidence of family homicide, including killings that occur between spouses, than on other types of homicide.
  4. Some research in the U.S. has shown that when sex ratios are high in the general population (e.g. more men than women), the killing of females may increase. While the sex ratio in Canada remains about equal at 1:1, women began to outnumber men in Canada in 1976 and the gap continues to increase.
  5. Some U.S. researchers suggest that society is undergoing a type of "civilizing" process that involves not accepting interpersonal violence. They suggest that the domestic violence movement has had a symbolic effect on society so that both the criminal justice system and the general public respond more negatively to such crimes than has been the case in the past.

Three important social changes were identified in the literature review:

  1. Gender Equality - Some studies suggest that increases in gender equality (e.g. measured by education, occupation, employment and income levels) contribute to an increase in the killing of women. The theory is that as women gain social status relative to men, they may also become more vulnerable. Other studies, on the other hand, suggest that these advances have decreased women's vulnerability since they have resulted in women being more financially and personally independent, allowing them to leave the situations where they are most vulnerable.

  2. Resource Availability - It has been suggested that the increased availability of domestic violence services and the existence of domestic violence legislation have played a role in reducing intimate partner homicide in the United States.

  3. Changing Relational Lifestyles - Falling marriage rates and an increase in the age at which people marry may have reduced the opportunities for intimate partner homicide, at least among married couples.

The review concludes by acknowledging the shortcomings in research (especially the lack of a systematic examination of these issues in Canada) and the need to look more carefully at these issues.2

Statistical Information

In June 2002, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) published National Trends in Intimate Partner Homicides, 1974-2000.3 This statistical analysis confirmed the trend towards declining numbers found in the previously discussed literature review. A summary of the statistics follows.

Numbers and rates

The statistics show that spousal homicide rates for both men and women appear to be declining. From 1974 to 2000, the rate per million couples for women decreased from 16.5 in 1974 to 11.1 in 2000. For men, the rate went from 4.4 in 1974 to 3.4 in 2000. However, in 2001 there was a substantial increase in the number of spousal homicides against women: 69 compared to 52 in 2000, though the 2001 figure was comparable to the average number over the period 1991-2000. There was no change in the number of wives killing husbands (16 in both 2000 and 2001).4

Homicide rates among other intimate partners declined during the period 1991-2000, with the exception of an increase in female rates between 1998 and 2000.

In the later 1990s, there was a noticeable decline in the overall number and rate of most forms of intimate partner homicide. The rate per million couples dropped from 9.9 between the years 1991 and 1995 to 7.4 between 1996 and 2000.

Women were the victims in more than three-quarters of the 2,600 spousal homicides recorded in Canada between 1974 and 2000. Women under the age of 25 were at greater risk (21.2 women per million couples compared to 6.6 for male victims in the same category), especially separated women who, between 1991 and 2000, were killed at the highest rate (113.4 women per million separated couples compared to 9.5 women per million separated couples 55 years and older, the group with the lowest rate).

The highest provincial rates of spousal homicide are found in the Western provinces (which also have the highest rates of violent crime in general). From 1974 to 2000, the rates for women were highest in Manitoba (16.1 women per million couples), while rates for men were highest in Saskatchewan (7.1). The lowest rates for women were recorded in Newfoundland and Labrador (4.1), and those for men in P.E.I. (1.0). Although few spousal homicides were actually committed in the three territories, because of the small populations the rates were the highest in the country. Between 1974 and 2000, the homicide rate for women in the Northwest Territories was seven times the national average (77.8 women per million couples), and it was four times the national average in the Yukon (47.3). Similarly, male spousal homicide rates were fourteen times higher in the N.W.T. (48.0) and six times higher in the Yukon (21.5).

Cause of death

Firearms were used to commit more than one in three spousal homicides between 1974 and 2000, more than any other method. However, there has been a significant decrease in the use of firearms in spousal and other intimate partner homicide. Between 1974 and 2000, the rate declined by 77% for women (from 7.7 wives per million in 1974 to 1.8 in 2000) and by 80% for men (from 2.0 husbands per million in 1974 to 0.4 in 2000).

Knives were the weapons used most frequently by both men and women in the commission of homicide among other intimate partners between 1991 and 2000, accounting for the death of more than one in three victims.

History of domestic violence

Between 1991 and 2000, 58% of spousal homicides followed a history of reported domestic violence between victims and offenders. Such a history was more likely to be reported for couples that were separated unions (73%), rather than those who were still married (44%).

Previous criminal record

Over half (53%) of all spousal homicides from 1991 to 2000 were committed by persons who had a prior criminal conviction, mostly for violent offences. Other intimate partner homicides involved an even higher percentage of accused with prior criminal convictions (64%).

Use of force

Men were much more likely than women to initiate the violent incidents that resulted in men's deaths.


In cases of spousal homicide, the most frequently cited motives were arguments (46%) and jealousy (21%). Jealousy was more often the motivating factor in cases where women were the victims (25%) than in cases involving male victims (8%).


More than one in five spousal homicides culminated in the suicide of the perpetrator. However, this is almost entirely a male phenomenon. Between 1974 and 2000, 28% of male offenders but only 3% of female offenders took their lives following the incident, a total of 564 men and 15 women.

Possible reasons for decline

The CCJS report advanced a number of reasons to explain the decline in intimate partner homicide rates. These include the following:

  1. The declining rate of marriage and the increased age of first marriages have resulted in "exposure reduction" as fewer couples fall into the age group with the highest risk of spousal homicide.
  2. Average annual earnings have increased; more people are pursuing post-secondary education; more women are joining the labour force; and people are having fewer children and waiting longer to have them. All of these factors offer greater opportunities for economic independence, which may provide alternatives to remaining in abusive, and possibly fatal, relationships.
  3. The number of shelters increased from 18 in 1975 to more than 500 by 1999. There has been a corresponding rise in shelter use from 45,777 in 1992-93 to 57,182 in 1999-2000. According to the 2000 Transition Home Survey, 2,826 women and 2,525 children were admitted to shelters on a single day (April 17, 2000). On the same day, another 254 women and 222 children were turned away, primarily because the shelters were full.
  4. In 1983, mandatory pro-charging and prosecution policies were adopted that require police to charge in cases of spousal violence where there are reasonable and probable grounds to do so, and the Crown to prosecute where there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction.
  5. Specialized Domestic Violence Courts have been introduced in a number of jurisdictions.
  6. The Criminal Code was amended to add the offence of criminal harassment (stalking).
  7. There have been some important court decisions such as R. v. Lavallee (Battered Women's Defence).
  8. Several jurisdictions have enacted, or are about to enact, domestic violence legislation to provide protection to victims of domestic violence.

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