Four years into her law practice representing abused women, Pamela Cross, Law’93, made a career-altering decision in 1999 that would give her a forum to advocate for survivors of gender-based violence on a broader scale.
“I saw how the court system did not respond well to family violence,” says Cross, who acted for women in family court, in child protection proceedings and in criminal court. “I was also very involved with the shelter and the sexual assault centre. I realized I wanted to work for systemic change through education, training and law reform advocacy, which was consistent with my longstanding political activism.”
That is what she has been doing – and excelling at – for two decades. For this work, she has been recognized by the province, the nation and by her Queen’s Law peers. Pamela Cross is this year’s recipient of the J.A. (Alec) Corry Distinguished Alumni Award for excelling in a career outside the traditional practice of law.
In a position she has held for the past five years, Cross is the Legal Director of Luke’s Place, an Oshawa-based non-profit organization. “Our work assists women fleeing abuse who have family law issues,” she says. “Primarily, I lead our systemic projects on research, law and policy reform, training and education and resource development.”
Among other things, she and her team published Family Court and Beyond (2019), a family court survival workbook for women fleeing abuse; and conducted research for the Department of Justice Canada on the use of screening tools for family law lawyers.
She is the lead trainer for Ontario’s 100 Family Court support workers and other frontline workers. Over the past five years, she has provided domestic violence awareness training to about 2,500 Legal Aid Ontario staff, community clinics and lawyers across the province. She co-chaired the Violence Against Women Roundtable, which provided guidance to the provincial government.
Cross has also been involved in the development of many firsts for Luke’s Place, including its two clinics. One is the Pro Bono Summary Advice Clinic that serves for women in the Durham Region who cannot afford a lawyer. The COVID-19 crisis has led to the expansion of the second Luke’s Place clinic: its Virtual Legal Clinic, which now serves women fleeing abuse in all regions of the province.
“With the need for physical distancing and the courts suspending regular operations, many of the women we assist – who were either just starting or in the midst of a family court case – were at high risk,” she explains. “We use a private and secure platform to connect women who need legal advice with lawyers who offer their time pro bono.
“As well, we have made ourselves a kind of clearinghouse for legal information related to COVID-19: we summarize and post family court decisions as they are made, have created resources to assist frontline workers, have developed three webinars to support frontline workers, and more.”
Beyond her work with Luke’s Place, Cross heads “Not Okay,” a Status of Women Canada project with Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Clinic. She also works with a number of women’s equality organizations across Canada, including the National Association of Women and the Law and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW). Among her publications for CCMW are “Muslim and Canadian Family Laws: A Comparative Primer” and “Violence Against Women: Health and Justice for Canadian Women.”
Most recently, with funding from the federal Department of Justice, she led a team that researched the use of family violence screening tools for family law practitioners. The final report, “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: The importance of family violence screening tools for family law practitioners,” includes a draft screening tool and the recommendation that a universal screening tool be adopted for all family law practitioners.
A long-time activist, Cross has worked on such issues as prison reform, environmental change, women’s reproductive rights, women’s equality rights, Indigenous rights, anti-militarism, and more. “That activism has included the use of civil disobedience,” she says. “Earlier this year, my friend and fellow activist, Aric McBay, and I released a legal handbook for people engaging in direct action politics.”
Among her many honours, Cross has received both the Law Society of Ontario’s Laura Legge Award and the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Guthrie Award in 2019 as well as the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General’s Victim Services Award of Distinction in 2015. A well-known and respected legal expert on domestic violence, she is regularly called upon to speak on national radio and television and at provincial and national conferences.
Back in September 1990 when Cross began her studies at Queen’s Law, she already knew how she would make the best use of her legal education. “I went to law school when I was in my mid-30s, with a clear vision that I wanted to use law to make social change,” she says. “My time in law school gave me the tools and confidence to, first, start my own practice and, second, move on to working at the systemic level.”
Since her graduation and law practice, she went on to leadership positions with Toronto’s Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women, the Ontario Women’s Justice Network and the National Association of Women and the Law.
Cross now lives in eastern Ontario with her partner and has four grandchildren. While her day job is working with survivors of gender-based violence who engage with the family and criminal law systems, she stays involved as a trainer and educator with her other passion project, direct action politics.