- Believing Women
You can’t say anything useful without knowing what actually happened.Elizabeth Sheehy, Book Launch, March 2014
A much-published colleague recently told me that most academic work is read by only five readers. Although I find that depressing, I am not especially surprised. The sheer quantity of research and writing produced by smart and well-meaning scholars responding to institutional expectations means it is increasingly difficult to stay up to date. In the end, even when one is aware of the existence of potentially significant scholarship (however defined), it is necessary to make difficult reading choices fuelled by subjective preference, reputation, and presumed utility. All of those criteria would have led me to choose to read this masterful book. It is the intellectual culmination of twenty-five years of scholarship, advocacy, law reform effort, teaching, collaborating, and listening as well as the direct product of ten years of careful and comprehensive research. It is a must read. Choose it.
No review can do justice to the sheer volume of material explored and explained in this book. In what follows, I will describe Elizabeth Sheehy’s methodology and her objectives, briefly set out the book’s structure, and then introduce the potential reader to the stories told in the book, explaining their individual and collective significance to Sheehy’s analytic project. The book’s final chapter is a compendium of “thoughtful and actionable recommendations that if implemented would enhance equality and social justice for women.”1 It is an indispensable primer for anyone wishing to increase the likelihood that women’s self-defence claims will be fairly judged.2 Although each and every one of these recommendations deserves the attention of lawmakers, advocates, activists, and academics, I will focus particularly on what Sheehy’s research reveals about the behaviour of the legal professionals who often dominate the narratives. [End Page 431]
There are hopeful stories of legal skill and professional courage here,3 but there are also stories of “resolute advocacy”4 run amok and of systematic and entrenched sexism and racism. I am interested in how the narratives of professional responsibility and public interest constructed by law societies and taught to students in Canadian law schools actually play out in a deeply complicated and contested area of the criminal law dominated by gender and race inequality. Sheehy’s decision to base her analysis on transcripts offers scholars of professional ethics a goldmine of information about the real world of the criminal trial and about the choices lawyers make in delivering legal services that are meant to “serve the public interest.” I will conclude by bringing the discussion back to the author. This book tells us a great deal about how one fearless and committed feminist lives her politics as a legal academic. There is much to learn from her example.
As a feminist, activist, and scholar, Sheehy has worked tirelessly on the issues that confront battered women for a quarter of a century. Speaking in an interview following the book’s publication, she explained that her work led her to the conclusion that effective change needed to be grounded in the actual legal experiences of battered women. In particular, she wondered about the real legacy of R. v Lavallee,5 the decision in which the Supreme Court of Canada changed the law of self-defence to account for women’s realities. Had Lavallee actually responded to the unfairness that confronted battered women on trial for murder? What was happening at their trials? Were self-defence arguments being advanced? How were women who killed their batterers charged? Did lawyers and judges understand women’s self-defence claims or the significance of their experiences of abuse? Were women being acquitted or convicted—and of what? What sentences were being imposed? For Sheehy, the only way to answer these questions, to get an “accurate picture of what was going on for women,”6 was through an examination of trial transcripts: “I searched electronic legal and news databases to identify 141 cases [End Page 432] in which women were charged with...