Badly-needed family law investments deserve recognition
Province and feds must get credit for working together to solve a problem that impacts families
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.