Are solutions to family law problems closer than we know?

The “crisis” in family law has been a favourite topic for years.

The problem: a costly, adversarial legal system that is ill-equipped for today’s family law problems.

Scales of JusticeIt has been studied in depth, with many suggestions for improvement. A recent draft report by the National Action Committee on Access to Justice contains many such ideas.

But we should also be looking at what is working– and it is closer to home than many may realize.

Ontario is far ahead of the other provinces when it comes to funding services that increase access to family justice.

Ontario long ago created specialized Family Courts and funds extensive services including triage, screening and mediation.

In Toronto, for instance, a person who is separating from their spouse may access these free services:

  • an information program that explains the system, mediation, and available services
  • triage, guidance and referrals from a trained Information and Referral Coordinator
  • information (in a range of languages) about separation, family law, courts, forms, mediation, community services, legal aid, translation, counselling, social services, and more, in a Family Law Information Centre;
  • support, including free legal advice, from a Family Court Support Worker, available to help victims of family violence
  • legal advice from duty counsel or advice counsel
  • screening for mediation, and mediation, provided by accredited on-site mediators who are either family lawyers or mental health professionals
  • highly subsidized additional mediation for more complex cases, provided by accredited lawyer or mental health professional mediators,
  • mediation provided by Legal Aid Mediators; Justice Net mediators and in some courts staff mediators.

Ontario has the infrastructure and trained professionals to provide the front-end triage, dispute resolution and support services recommended by so many of these reports.

And British Columbia is leading the way in legislative reform.

Recent changes to the Family Law Act require family lawyers to manage files with settlement, rather than court, in mind.

And it is the first jurisdiction to take safety seriously, requiring family law professionals– lawyers, arbitrators, parenting coordinators, mediators, collaborative practitioners– to assess family violence and how they will keep parties and children safe.

If all jurisdictions could have British Columbia’s family law statute and Ontario’s resources— enormous progress could be made towards addressing today’s access to justice concerns.