Law allowing abuse survivors to end leases early without penalty takes effect

By The Canadian Press
August 10, 2016 - 6:49am

CALGARY — Twice, Maria Fitzpatrick tried to leave a "horrific" abusive relationship. Twice, she was forced to return.

Women's shelters were only a temporary refuge. It was too expensive for the NDP member of the Alberta legislature to break her lease early and find a place of her own.

"I lived through nine years of horrific abuse at the hands of my ex-husband. The abuse left me with broken bones, black eyes and the heartbreak of two miscarriages," said Fitzpatrick, who was elected in May 2015.

"Money is one of the reasons people stay in abusive relationships."

Now others trying to escape domestic violence in Alberta can end their leases without financial penalty after changes to the province's rental legislation.

"This law removes one barrier, helping victims of domestic abuse escape from their tormentors," Fitzpatrick said Tuesday.  

Calgary NDP member Deborah Drever, who said she has witnessed violence in her own family home, spearheaded the effort to amend the province's Residential Tenancies Act last fall with a private member's bill.

The legislation passed unanimously late last year and, following months of consultations, the changes became law this week.

"Survivors of domestic violence have to be able to move quickly," said Drever. "They should not have to worry about the financial burden of breaking a lease."

Under the new rules, certificates must be presented to landlords showing tenants are at risk if they're forced to stay.

Obtaining a certificate involves giving the Human Services Ministry an emergency protection order, peace bond or statement from a certified professional, such as a doctor, nurse, social worker or psychologist.

The province estimates about 60 to 100 certificates may be issued a year.

Kim Ruse, executive director of the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter, said she's often asked: "Why don't the women just leave?"

Although the answers are complicated, there are common threads, she said.

"Many of these themes are financial or related to the difficulty in accessing safe and affordable housing."

Angela Pitt, the Opposition Wildrose Party's human services critic, said the legislation helps, but there is still much work to be done.

"Our justice system is still clogged with delays, while women too often do not know where to turn for resources and support," she said in a release.

"It is our hope that this program is strictly monitored and measured to ensure victims are afforded the adequate safeguards this law aims to provide."

Service Alberta and Status of Women Minister Stephanie McLean praised the work of Drever, who had a rocky start to her political career.

Drever was a third-year sociology student when she won her seat in the May 5 election. Shortly after, a series of embarrassing social media posts came to light and she was booted from the NDP caucus.

After months sitting in the legislature as an Independent, during which she worked on the domestic violence bill, she was welcomed back into the party in January.

"As a young rookie MLA who found herself in a tough position after being elected, it would have been easy for her to play it safe in the legislature. I know that some critics were probably expecting her to do just that," said McLean.

"But instead, she asked herself: 'As an MLA, what can I do to make the lives of Albertans and my constituents better?'"

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

©2016 The Canadian Press

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