The 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).