Badly-needed fam­ily law in­vest­ments de­serve recog­ni­tion

Prov­ince and feds must get credit for work­ing to­gether to solve a prob­lem that im­pacts fam­i­lies

The Niagara Falls Review - - Opinion - PAUL SCHABAS Paul Schabas is trea­surer of the Law So­ci­ety of On­tario.

Out­side crim­i­nal law, in­vest­ments in our courts rarely make head­lines. But they should. No area of law af­fects Cana­di­ans more than fam­ily law. And the 2018 fed­eral bud­get took a big step to im­prov­ing our fam­ily court sys­tem. Peo­ple should take no­tice.

Last month’s fed­eral bud­get in­cluded $77.2 mil­lion over four years, start­ing in 2019, and then $20.8 mil­lion per year on­go­ing, to sup­port the ex­pan­sion of Unified Fam­ily Courts (UFCs), cre­at­ing 39 new ju­di­cial po­si­tions in Al­berta, On­tario, Nova Sco­tia, and New­found­land and Labrador.

This fund­ing will sup­port Phase 1 of On­tario’s plan to im­me­di­ately ex­pand UFCs to Belleville, Picton, Pem­broke, Kitch­ener, Wel­land, Sim­coe, Cayuga and St. Thomas.

This an­nounce­ment is wel­come news for a sys­tem many be­lieve to be in a cri­sis. Con­sider the statis­tics.

In 2016, On­tario’s Fam­ily Court Branch and Su­pe­rior Court of Jus­tice had nearly 50,000 new pro­ceed­ings deal­ing with di­vorce and fam­ily law-re­lated is­sues, while the On­tario Court of Jus­tice had nearly 19,000 cases re­lated to fam­ily law be­tween Septem­ber 2016 and Oc­to­ber 2017.

A sur­vey com­mis­sioned by the Law So­ci­ety of On­tario’s Ac­tion Group on Ac­cess to Jus­tice (TAG) found that 58 per cent of re­spon­dents ranked find­ing ways to ad­dress prob­lems and im­prove the fam­ily jus­tice sys­tem as “most im­por­tant.”

The prob­lem dates back to our 1867 Con­sti­tu­tion, which re­quired fam­ily law is­sues to go to dif­fer­ent lev­els of court, de­pend­ing upon the is­sue. For ex­am­ple, fam­i­lies seek­ing a di­vorce or divi­sion of prop­erty needed to go to the Su­pe­rior Court, be­fore fed­er­ally ap­pointed judges, but were re­quired to see provin­cially ap­pointed judges in the On­tario Court of Jus­tice about child pro­tec­tion and adop­tion. Of­ten, fam­i­lies could face re­lated cases in both courts at the same time.

For those al­ready ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a fam­ily break­down, this com­plex and of­ten con­fus­ing sys­tem takes an un­nec­es­sary ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial and emo­tional toll.

On­tario and other prov­inces started to ad­dress this is­sue years ago. The pro­vin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments col­lab­o­rated in 1977 to pi­lot the first UFC in Hamil­ton — where one judge in one court could de­ter­mine all the le­gal is­sues in a fam­ily law dis­pute re­lated to, for ex­am­ple, di­vorce, cus­tody, child pro­tec­tion and prop­erty mat­ters.

These new courts also in­tro­duced fron­tend fam­ily jus­tice ser­vices, in­clud­ing me­di­a­tion, manda­tory in­for­ma­tion and re­fer­rals for fam­ily lit­i­gants, with the goal of help­ing them re­solve their dis­putes in more holis­tic ways.

Be­tween 1977 and 1999, UFCs were ex­panded in On­tario to in­clude 17 of the prov­ince’s 50 Su­pe­rior Court lo­ca­tions — or about 40 per cent of the prov­ince. They are cur­rently lo­cated in Bar­rie, Brace­bridge, Brockville, Cobourg, Corn­wall, Hamil­ton, Kingston, Lind­say, Lon­don, L’Orig­i­nal, Na­pa­nee, New­mar­ket, Oshawa, Ottawa, Peterborough, Perth and St. Catharines.

De­spite the un­qual­i­fied suc­cess of UFCs, and calls for the model to be adopted across the prov­ince, there has been no fur­ther ex­pan­sion since 1999. It re­quires co-op­er­a­tion and will, from both pro­vin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments, which must agree on fund­ing, ju­di­cial ap­point­ments and other mat­ters.

We know that a sig­nif­i­cant gap ex­ists be­tween those who qual­ify for le­gal aid ser­vices and those who need it, re­sult­ing in a large seg­ment of On­tario’s mid­dlein­come pop­u­la­tion who re­quire le­gal aid as­sis­tance but can­not af­ford it. For those who act as self-rep­re­sented lit­i­gants, UFCs make the sys­tem eas­ier to nav­i­gate.

For decades, ex­pand­ing UFCs has been a goal for On­tario’s le­gal com­mu­nity. With the fund­ing an­nounce­ment in the bud­get, more peo­ple will have ac­cess to a timely, ef­fec­tive and re­spon­sive fam­ily jus­tice sys­tem that con­trib­utes to less ad­ver­sar­ial, more sus­tain­able and bet­ter out­comes for fam­i­lies and chil­dren.

The fed­eral and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, and par­tic­u­larly their Min­is­ters of Jus­tice, Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould and At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Yasir Naqvi, de­serve credit for work­ing to­gether on this is­sue.

It may not make head­lines, but it sure is im­por­tant.

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