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CAS Clogs London Courts
November 30, 2013 permalink
In London Ontario the volume of CAS cases is large enough to block the courts for months.
Family law cases flood court system in London
If you’re fighting over a divorce, child support or property in London’s courts, better settle in.
Hundreds of family law cases in the court system are suddenly in limbo for the next six months, until a backlog of more than 70 child welfare cases is cleared up.
The order to make Children’s Aid Society (CAS) cases a priority came from the top, the court’s regional senior justice, after the trial list swelled to more than 100 CAS files.
Since the blitz began, that number has been whittled down to just more than 70 — but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Another 200 family law cases, unrelated to the CAS, are waiting in the wings.
Why there’s such a glut of child-welfare cases is complex. It’s partly because of the growing cases tied to economic troubles. One case that gobbled 154 days of trial time and the work of six lawyers, could also be a factor.
One veteran family law lawyer says the system is “completely overwhelmed,” needing ways to siphon off cases and relieve pressure on the courts.
“We are not triaging cases,” said lawyer Alf Mamo. “There are cases that could be diverted out of the court system and we’re having trials that are going on for days on end that could be resolved in one or two days without sacrificing fairness.”
As child-welfare caseloads rise, the number of applications the CAS takes to court also go up, said Jill Scrutton-Fulford, senior counsel for the Children’s Aid Society of London and Middlesex.
Only a small percentage of the agency’s caseload winds up in court, including cases where children are removed from their families to become wards of the state or be up for adoption.
In her 25 years working with such cases, Scrutton-Fulford said, “it’s the first time I’ve seen a blitz like this.”
Unlike most of Ontario, London has a so-called ‘unified’ family court in which Superior Court judges handle all aspects of the cases.
In most of Ontario, that workload is split between provincial and federal judges.
In London, however, there only four full-time family court judges — too few, said family lawyer Toenie Hersch, to complete all the work.
Guidelines say child-welfare cases should take no longer than 120 days to complete, but that rule of thumb is rarely, if ever, followed.
Lawyers say it’s not enough time for families to get the support they need — from counselling, to drug treatment and anger management — to stay together. Nor is it long enough to get through the court process.
“It is humanly impossible in the majority of cases to comply with these timelines,” said Hersch.
“This rule is unrealistic in 95% of cases in my view,” he said.
Hersch said less than a dozen lawyers in London will do CAS cases, almost always left to legal aid and involving at-risk families.
The highest-priority cases in the blitz are trials before a child can be removed from their parents.
Those cases, Hersch said, are so serious they’re “akin to the death penalty,” consuming a lot of time and energy.
Not only are they long, but the trial time in such cases has to be balanced with the interests of the child in foster care.
Mamo said more innovative solutions, such as dispute resolution or early case conferences, are needed to reduce the family law trial list.
While he said he understands why CAS cases have priority, “we should not ignore the fact there are other children” who need access to the court for things like child support and parental custody and access, he said.
The trial list has been moving faster since the judicial order came down this month, with some cases settled at the courtroom door or early in trial, Scrutton-Fulford said. Still, she noted, more cases come to the CAS daily.
“I think it’s just a matter of numbers climbing over time,” she said of the backlog.
CAS COURT CASELOAD
- 70 trials are on the trial list.
- 30 to 40 are Crown ward cases.
- To be cleared by May 30, when other family law cases can be scheduled.
OTHER COURT DELAYS
- Civil trials in London are being scheduled into 2015.
- Criminal cases are being scheduled as late as a year from now.
Source: London Free Press