Access To Justice : Community Realities

flyer promoting Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario's 2nd Annual Forum on Access to Justice held on November 24th, 2016 at the Law Society of Upper CanadaThe theme for FDRWeek this year was “FDRevolution”, highlighting the emerging revolutionary changes and innovative techniques, products, services and complexities of FDR practice. On Thursday, Nov. 24th,  FDRIO held its 2nd annual Access to Justice Forum: at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Read more on the discussion between community members, organizations, and professionals on how to improve access to justice.

Domestic violence, poverty, mental health and language barriers can pose significant challenges for those seeking family law services. These barriers impede many individuals experiencing separation and divorce from accessing legal services and family dispute resolution (FDR) resources. Considering this pressing issue, the Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario (FDRIO) hosted it’s 2nd Annual Forum on Access to Justice in Family Law. This forum was held during FDRweek to bring together academics, family violence experts, FDR practitioners, legal aid specialists, mental health professionals and policy makers in an interactive dialogue to discuss and debate creative solutions to this critical issue and identify initiatives that work.

The forum opened with Dr. Les Jacobs dissecting his recent research with the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) investigating the social and economic costs of Canada’s justice system. The senior research fellow’s work with the Cost of Justice project is producing empirical data that will inform the future of access to justice in Canada. The study revealed what most at the workshop already know: there are serious gaps in access to justice when dealing with family law issues. According to the Access to Civil & Family Justice report, nearly 12 million Canadians will experience at least 1 legal problem in a given 3 year period and few will have the resources to solve them[i].

Community Voices: Panelists speak out

Panelists each identified access to resources as a problem for clients accessing justice in family law disputes. A panelist and counsel with the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) noted the challenge of overcoming anti-black racism and community perceptions of the justice system as barriers for black men in accessing resources when dealing with high conflict family law cases. The ACLC is one of only a handful of legal resources that has services available to black men specifically. Mental health professionals attending the workshop shared how there are no services that meet some clients’ specific mobility needs. For people experiencing PTSD, severe anxiety, and depression, leaving their home to access legal resources is not always a viable option. So many professionals have clients for whom there are limited to no resources for their specific family legal issues. The gap in access to justice in family law extends especially to those in living in poverty.

Dr. Jacobs confirmed that members of poor and vulnerable groups are particularly prone to legal problems. They experience more legal problems than higher income earners and more secure groups. The cost of legal services and length of proceedings is increasing. Legal fees in Canada vary significantly; however, one CFCJ report provides a rough range of national average hourly rates from approximately $195 (for lawyers called in 2012) to $380 (for lawyers called in 1992 and earlier)[ii]

Further, legal aid funding is available only for those of extremely modest means. For those with middle-income ranges, legal aid funding is generally only available for individuals with a gross annual salary of less than $18,000, or for a family of 4 with a total gross annual salary of $37,000. So, whether you are living in poverty or in the middle class, there is likely to be a cost factor in your ability to access justice[iii].

A community outreach worker with Centre for Immigrant and Community Services (CICS) shared examples of how income disparities impact access to justice in family law. Often there can be language barriers, issues with citizenship and cultural differences that pose problems to employment and gainful employment which could pay for family law services. Dr. Jacobs also noted how people’s problems multiply. Canadian’s have one kind of legal problem can often lead to other legal, social and health related problems. At the CNE this past summer, The Action Group (TAG) had volunteers providing information to the public. Diverse groups of people approached the volunteers of the legal advocacy group in droves sharing their stories, not realizing that they in fact are facing a multiplicity of legal issues at once.

Finally, Dr. Jacob’s investigation showed that legal problems have social and economic costs. It is no surprise that unresolved legal problems adversely affect people’s lives and trickled down to public funds. One panelist can attest to this through his work at Downtown Legal Services with the University of Toronto. It is not unusual, for a case to go to court despite all efforts to divert parties away towards an alternative dispute resolution options. This puts added unnecessary strain on the system when less costly route could be more effective. The common reasons for these outcomes is people do not find the legal information accessible. Overwhelmed by an already stressful family law issue, people do not always have the tools to navigate the information presented to them.

Fortunately, groups like Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN) and TAG are collaborating to provide easily accessible legal information and resources through multiple mediums.
Continued collaboration with community organizations and further research is needed to improve access to justice in the family law system.

[i]  Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, Access to Civil & Family Justice: A roadmap for change. (Ottawa: Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters., 2013).

[ii] supra

[iii] supra

Rhodes Thompson-Chase is an administrative assistant at Riverdale Mediation . Rhodes graduated from Carleton University where he earned his BA (Hon)  in Law and Gender Studies.

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Collaboration Across the Caribbean: Training with the IMPACT Justice Project

4 photographs of students and trainers collaborating over course materialJoel Skapiner, Nicole Stewart-Kamanga, Regina Thompson and Elizabeth spent a week in Guyana conducting another session of ADR training in collaboration with IMPACT Justice project. Read Joel’s account of their time in Georgetown!

4 photographs of students and trainers collaborating on course materialFour mediate393 roster mediators are spending a week in Guyana training social workers to upgrade their mediation skills through a program called IMPACT Justice project funded by the Government of Canada and run through Riverdale Mediation in Toronto. There are about 25 participants who are almost equally divided between child protection workers and “probation officers”. I have the latter in quotes because their roles are different from what they would be in Canada. Their roles include conducting pre-trial investigations and reporting their findings to the court. The child protection workers, unlike in Ontario, conduct pre-apprehension mediations with the aim of reducing the number of apprehensions. Mediation plays a large role for both jobs and the participants in the program are keen to absorb as many skills as we can impart.

2 photographs of students and trainers collaborating on course material, 2 photos of Georgetown magistrate courtsI was taken on a tour of the Georgetown Magistrates Court to see how that court processes its cases.  In Guyana, the Magistrates are a combination of what in Ontario would be Provincial Court judges and Justices of the Peace.  I sat through two spousal interim restraining order applications & closing submissions in two drug trials. The first thing that struck me was how difficult it was to hear all the parties. The courthouse is on the main street and with single pane windows, every truck’s engine & constant car horns reverberated through the courtroom.  In addition to that, two air conditioning units (it was 32 degrees Celsius with very high humidity outside) rumbled so loud that any voices not drowned out by the outside noise were taken care of by the AC units. Counsel, witnesses, and the magistrate were constantly asking one another to repeat themselves. I noticed there were no court reporters in any of the courts.

When I was introduced to a magistrate in chambers during a break in the proceedings I was told by her (most of the magistrates were women) in answer to my question about a record of proceedings, that their only record consisted of her notes which would be typed if a matter went on appeal. Overall, the courts seemed to be very efficient and there is an emphasis on process. The only real surprise I had was when counsel for one of the drug case’s accused referred to the prosecutor as being his learned friend and “a very nice young girl”. No one at the court except for me seemed to react to this.

4 photographs of students and trainers in collaboration on course materialVery few people can afford the courts in Guyana and so our training should go far to help resolve disputes in a quick and affordable way.


Our Team in Guyana!

Joel Skapinker

Joel has many years of experience practicing family law, currently with Skapinker & Shapiro.

Nicole Stewart Kamanga

Nicole is an Accredited Family Mediator and Family Lawyer with a negotiation/mediation-based private practice. She holds an LL.M. in ADR. Nicole is a panel lawyer with the Office of the Children’s Lawyer and sits on the Board of the Ontario Bar Association’s ADR Section.

Elizabeth Hyde

Elizabeth is an arbitrator, mediator and parenting coordinator with Riverdale Mediation Ltd.

Regina Thompson smiling

Regina Thompson

Regina is a parenting mediator, a family/child protection mediator and a Certified Adjudicator. Regina is founder and principal of Strategic Intervention Services Associates; a full-service culturally contextualized ADR consultancy.



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ADR Training in Guyana: a Cultural Melting-Pot

Our team of mediators is in Guyana delivering another round of ADR training to community leaders with the IMPACT Justice project. Learn more about our complex cultural experience in Georgetown!

Our teaching team in GuyanaI am in Georgetown, Guyana this week with colleagues Regina Thompson, Akbar Ebrahim and Michelle Walton, all family mediators working with mediate393 and all experienced trainers.

We are working with the IMPACT Justice project— a Canadian government funded project designed to improve access to justice in the Caribbean in a wide range of ways.

This training is one of several that we have provided or will provide for police officers, community leaders, and social workers in St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, Trinidad, and Belize. Participants from other Caricom countries are attending these as well.

Our “students” in Guyana are social workers— in the child protection, courts and probation sectors. They are all experienced professionals. As well, we have the honour of having Professor Velma Newton, the regional project director, with us for this segment of the training.

We have learned a great deal about Guyana in our first two days here. The country’s history is complex— with a legacy of colonization of indigenous peoples by Spanish, Dutch, British and French and the subsequent waves of people who were brought here or came here to provide plantation labour. This included slaves from Africa; indentured workers from India; and labourers from Portugal and China, all of whom have brought cultures and differences and contributions to the demographics and politics and diet and way of life and conflicts that exist today. Add to this the economic impact— both positive and negative— of an economy largely based on resource extraction.  All of these factors have played out in the discussions and role plays we have had in our conflict resolution training.

Our time teaching community professionals in GuyanaI have learned that this large landmass has only 750,000 citizens…. which seems so small given that many of the people in my life, personally and professionally, are of Guyanese origin! And that the interior of Guyana— which we will not have any opportunity to explore this time—is pristine and stunning.

We have been welcomed by great warmth, tolerance, and understanding, factors I understand are common to Guyanese culture. This, along with their great insight, has made for a truly wonderful and enlightening experience here in Guyana so far.

Our Team in Guyana!

Hilary Linton is a Toronto lawyer whose practice is restricted to providing mediation, arbitration, teaching and consulting services.  She has used her years of experience to launch her ADR business, Riverdale Mediation, which specializes in family mediation and arbitration, teaching mediation and negotiation theory and skills, and private training and consulting for corporations, government and individuals.

AkbarAkbar Ebrahim is an Accredited Mediator and a Master Trainer certified by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), London, England in 2013 and accredited Family Mediator certified by the OAFM Ontario in 2014. Akbar has mediated over 150 matrimonial, commercial and Wills/Estate related disputes and during his term as Chairperson of the Ontraio RCAB, he managed over 400 cases.

Regina Thompson smiling

Regina is a parenting mediator, a family/child protection mediator and a Certified Adjudicator. Regina is founder and principal of Strategic Intervention Services Associates; a full-service culturally contextualized ADR consultancy.

Michelle is a certified Family Mediator and IRC with mediate 393. She is also a past intern of Riverdale Mediation Ltd. Michelle provides in-depth insights to her clients with respect to conflict resolution and developing conflict management processes best suited to their needs.

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Mediating Through a Tropical Storm: Training in Dominica

Photo collage of participants at our training course in Roseau, Dominica

Jared, Regina, Caroline and I are sitting in the dining room of the Fort Young Hotel in the capital of Dominica, Roseau. The dining room is actually an old fort which was built by the British in 1771 after they had seized the old fort from the French. We arrived on Saturday after an hour and a half drive through the mountains in the dark along a steep, windy and narrow road where we did hairpin turns very close to the edge of large cliffs. Although we could not see a lot, we will see it on our way back in the daylight. We have been training 28 police officers from around this gorgeous island in negotiation and mediation skills through a program called the Impact Justice Project.

This program is in cooperation with the University of the West Indies and the Canadian Government. Our first 2 days were spent teaching the theory and skills related to the practice of both. The officers have a variety of experience in dealing with all sorts of domestic and community disputes and were eager to hear about the theory that informs their practice.

Today, however, we woke up to the calm before the storm and by lunch time we were in the middle of tropical storm “Matthew”.

Teaching in the dark during tropical storm “Mathew” in Roseau, Dominica

All participants were called back to their stations to ensure safety in the community and we are now looking at the agenda to ensure we can cover the rest of the course in the time remaining. In addition, as the island has still not recovered from the devastation of tropical storm “Erica” in  August of 2015, many of the roads and bridges will be unpassable in the morning so we are not sure how many will make it back and…… whether will be able to leave as planned on Saturday. Not a bad place to be marooned. Prior to our abrupt end this morning, we spent the morning talking about high conflict people and the participants recognized many of the characteristics we talked about. They are an engaging group.

Stay tuned for updates from the team!

Our team in Dominica…

Caroline Felstiner smiling

Caroline Felstiner

Caroline Felstiner is an accredited family mediator, child protection mediator, and a registered social worker.

Elizabeth Hyde

Elizabeth is an arbitrator, mediator and parenting coordinator with Riverdale Mediation Ltd.

Regina Thompson smiling

Regina Thompson

Regina is a parenting mediator, a family/child protection mediator and a certified adjudicator.

Jared Norton

Jared is a registered social worker, parenting coordinator, and an accredited family mediator with Riverdale Mediation Ltd.

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Community mediation training for police officers in Dominica

Riverdale Mediation will be training twenty-eight police officers to become community mediators in Rousseau, Dominica. This 40 hours training workshop, which runs from September 26th- 30th, is in collaboration with the Improved Access to Justice in the Carribbean (IMPACT Justice) Project. Our most recent workshop will be lead by Elizabeth Hyde and Jared Norton with our roster mediators Regina Thompson and Caroline Felstiner.

Since early Spring 2016, Riverdale has trained community leaders in alternative dispute resolution in Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia. We will be broadening our training to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Belize this year.

Visit our blog to stay informed on our workshops abroad!

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Exploring Your Options in Dispute Resolution: Mediation


Mediation is a voluntary process of negotiation that is led by a neutral expert in conflict resolution skills. Family mediators are often family lawyers or mental health professionals themselves. Mediators generally do not provide solutions, and unless lawyers attend, mediation does not result in a signed , binding agreement. Rather, parties attend mediation to freely discuss the problems they seek to resolve, what they may need to be able to do that and the range of possible solutions.

Mediators do the following:

  • identify those cases that are suitable for mediation, through a process of confidential intake meetings with each person (screening)
  • support clients to make the choice to mediate by assessing the supports they will each need in order to participate
  • help parties assess their own safety risks and direct them to appropriate safety planning where risk is identified and assessed
  • help parties choose to use another process that is better suited for them, where appropriate
  • help parties access counselling, resources for their children and other resources to support the family
  • help parties access legal and other advice needed to fully participate in mediation
  • design a negotiation process that meets the procedural needs of each person
  • consider how the interests and views of children can be appropriately identified and addressed
  • help parties obtain the financial and other information they need to engage in fair and balanced negotiation
  • conduct a fair, balanced and informed negotiation process that is designed to be as safe as possible, emotionally, physically and legally for both parties and the children
  • help parties negotiate so that they can identify their respective interests and the range of possible solutions to the problems they seek to resolve
  • assist parties in deciding whether to settle if so, on what terms.

Mediation can be “open” or “closed”. Most mediators offer only closed mediation, meaning its is confidential and without prejudice. this means that the parties and the mediator agree that they will:

  1. keep all communications confidential, subject to the standard exceptions of information suggesting that a child or third party is at risk of harm , or a court order to disclose; and
  2. that neither party can report back to the court about any offer made during mediation. all proposals made in mediation are made without prejudice to that person’s position in court.

As such, a mediator providing closed mediation may only report back to the court about the terms of a settlement. everything else remains confidential. the purpose of closed mediation is to provide a ‘safe place for difficult conversations,’ and to empower parties to feel free to explore ideas and proposals without fear of looking bad or being prejudiced in their communities or in court.

Sometimes, parties seek open mediation , which can have two different meanings, which can be confusing. Under the Family Law Rules, “open mediation” merely means that the mediator may report back to the court on all of the issues that came to mediation, which settled (and on what terms) and which did not. This is a limited form of ‘open’ mediation.

However, in private practice, some mediators offer a broader form of open mediation, where the parties can agree on what they want the mediator to be able to disclose to a judge, arbitrator or assessor. in such cases, it falls to the parties to define the scope of information that will remain confidential and what can be reported. Open mediation is more complicated in many ways and parties and mediators need to have a full discussion about the possible implications of an open mediation process, including what information may be disclosed, when and how, and how the mediator will be paid for their time.

Additional Sources

Ten Tips for Lawyers

OAFM (Ontario Association of Family Mediation)

ADR Institute of Canada, Inc.

ADR Institute of Ontario, Inc.


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