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Reforming Backwards

September 18, 2011 permalink

An article in online magazine reports on the opening of the family courts, and the advance screening of Powerful As God. The article takes the view presented by justices Heather Smith and Warren Winkler that there is a big problem in family law: It is so expensive that families cannot avail themselves of its benefits.

This shows just how out of touch the legal profession really is. People are not asking for more family law, but less. Only a small part of the antagonistic litigation is initiated by family members with genuine grievances. Most comes when outsiders intervene in a family, creating probems that can only be resolved with legal help, legal help that is unavailable to most on account of cost. Interventions come from social workers removing children, from police carrying out obligatory arrests in even the most frivolous domestic disturbance calls, and from lawyers who engender animosity between couples wishing to separate amicably. Getting rid of these unnecessary interventions would eliminate most family litigation, and is what families really want from legal reforms.



Family Law Profiled at Opening of the Ontario Courts

On Tuesday, September 13, 2011 the Opening of the Courts was held in Toronto, preceded by an interfaith service at Church of the Holy Trinity. The service consisted of a fascinating mix of a number of readings, including a South African anti-Apartheid song (and dance). I couldn’t help but think that this would have been impossible a couple decades ago.

But attendees were surprised by a protest outside of the church as soon as the services completed. A video of the protest is available here, with one of the speakers saying,

We’re going to be here every single year.

At least some of the protesters appeared to be representing a website called Canada Court Watch, with their primary grievances focusing on family law. The judiciary hardly seemed insensitive to the plight of family law litigants, although choosing not to engage the protesters directly. The remarks by Chief Justice Heather Smith stated,

For several years now, I have targeted a significant portion of my Opening of the Courts remarks to family law proceedings in our court. My remarks included cautious optimism along with a fervent wish for faster progress towards our ultimate goal.

Similarly, the remarks by Chief Justice Warren Winkler stated,

The Governor General of Canada, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, observed in his address to the Bar Association that, “for many today, the law is not accessible.”

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who has taken a leading role in publicizing this issue, said that access to justice was the “greatest challenge facing the Canadian justice system.”

If we are to make meaningful progress in addressing this issue, we must concentrate on areas of law where we can have the greatest impact. We should prioritize those areas with the greatest societal need and where concrete change is achievable. Analysed in this fashion, family law cries out for reform.

Family law touches directly or indirectly almost everyone in our society. Our current family law system is too slow, too complex, too adversarial, and above all, too costly. There is no other area of justice reform where we can have a greater impact on ordinary Ontarians.

Some improvements in family law services have been made over the last year. I commend the Ministry of the Attorney General for its role in extending information, mediation and referral services to courts across the Province.

These are welcome changes, but much more must be done if we are going to make significant improvements in access to justice for families in transition.

If real progress is going to be made there must be a fundamental reformation of family law. In order to make family law more accessible, it must be more affordable. To achieve this, the procedures must be simplified and unnecessary steps removed thus shortening the process and making it cheaper. This will allow families to resolve their disputes in a more efficient and affordable manner, assisting them to more effectively move on with their lives.

In order to clear the way for the type of comprehensive reform that I believe necessary and have spoken about frequently, we have to extend the unified family court beyond the current 17 sites to the entire Province.

Change is needed in the family law system, and if these protesters are any indication, this change is needed sooner rather than later.

One step that members of the bar have taken to help address this in a more independent fashion is to provide accurate and timely information to members of the public about family law. This week also featured the television launch of Family Matters with Justice Harvey Brownstone, a show that both Connie and I have mentioned that was previously carried online but is now aired through mainstream television broadcasters. The show is the first television show in the world hosted by a sitting judge. Quebec is also launching a family show featuring a local family lawyer.

I was also invited this week to an advance screening of an independent documentary, Blakout. Family law appears high on the agenda for residents of Ontario, and it will be interesting to see how prominently it features in the upcoming provincial election. Whichever party does come out front should make it a priority to heed the calls for reformation from both the public and the respective heads of our judiciary.


backwards call for help