By MPP Toby Barrett
I have heard from so many who find Ontario family law frustrating. The sentiment being that the only winner is the lawyer. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be a winner but rather a process that puts families – especially children — first.
The Ontario government has introduced legislation that, once passed, will finally move family law forward for children and families. The bill is titled Moving Ontario Family Law Forward Act. Family disputes pose unique challenges in our justice system. People access the family law system in some of life’s most difficult moments, both emotionally and financially.
We all know someone who has been tied up in the system. It’s challenging, overly complex, outdated and causes anxiety among users. The system can be better, and I am proud to say we are working toward making it better.
First and foremost, we are working to apply common sense solutions to strengthen the system to be more accessible and responsive. Lawyers admit they find the current system confusing – if it’s confusing for lawyers, it must be extremely intimidating for those who must, or choose, to self-represent. Self-represented litigants compromise over 50 per cent of family law files.
Appeals have always been tricky but our government has devised an appeal process that will be more consistent for families regardless of what court hears their matter. Such a change will help children who are in difficult circumstances by ensuring final decisions are reached faster. Resolving these issues quickly is critical to stability and consistency for children.
Additionally, our government has called on the federal Attorney General to follow through on its commitment to roll out and accelerate Ontario’s work on the unified Family Court. Right now family court is heard at two different levels, depending on what matters they are dealing with – children or no children, and property, are all factors on where matters are heard.
A unified Family Court across Ontario would streamline the system significantly. Currently, about half of Ontario courts are unified. The federal government assures Ontario they will be moving in the right direction and support our request.
Our government has also been working with the Superior Court of Justice to expand the dispute resolution program to two new locations – Kitchener and Welland. The program already exists in nine other locations around the province.
Lawyers and litigants have told us they see value in having access to a dispute resolution officer (DRO) who is in fact a senior family lawyer. These DROs are appointed by the Superior Court of Justice and hold case conferences, which help narrow issues down and provide early neutral evaluations. DROs save everyone involved in the system save time and money. In some situations, this eliminates court time as couples come to resolve between themselves.
Further to these very important steps, we are eliminating an old requirement whereby arbitrators submitted detailed reports on every family arbitration award. No other jurisdiction requires this reporting and its elimination will save time and increase efficiency for arbitrators and other frontline workers.
Wading through family law in Ontario right now is cumbersome and costly. Our legislation will create a system easier to navigate and will save those who need to access it time, money and anguish.
There is much more in the bill many may find interesting — the bill can be viewed at: https://www.ola.org/en/legislative-business/house-documents/parliament-42/session-1/2020-09-30/hansard#P209_13233
Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk