CFCJ’S Report on Meaningful Change for Family Justice: Beyond Wise Words

The Action Committee on Access to Civil and Family Justice

Canadians do not have adequate access to family justice. For many years now reports have been telling us that cost, delay, complexity and other barriers are making it impossible for many Canadians to exercise their legal rights. More recently, a growing body of research has begun to quantify the extent of unmet legal need in our communities and to describe the disquieting individual and social consequences of failing to respond adequately to family legal problems.

We have in Canada a highly evolved and comprehensive body of substantive family laws designed to help provide direction to families about the rules that apply when issues arise on separation. Unfortunately, the procedures by which this substantive law is invoked are increasingly complex, unaffordable and inaccessible. Without access to the mechanisms to implement them, the substantive rules have limited value.

The Family Justice Working Group (the “FJWG”) is one of four Working Groups of the Action Committee on Access to Civil and Family Justice. The Action Committee’s chair, the Hon. Thomas A. Cromwell, has recently described the committee’s purpose and role with respect to the issue of access to civil justice as follows:

The Action Committee…sees itself as a broadly representative group of leaders in the field of civil and family justice which can develop consensus about priorities, encourage organizations and groups to take the lead with respect to them and provide ongoing consultation, coordination and advice (Thomas A. Cromwell “Access to justice: towards a collaborative and strategic approach” University of New Brunswick Law Journal (January, 2012), online:

The Committee has four Working Groups: Court Processes Simplification, Access to Legal Services, Prevention Triage and Referral, and Family Justice. The Working Groups have premised their work on a broad notion of access to justice, articulated by Justice Cromwell as follows:

“In general terms, members of our society would have appropriate access to civil and family justice if they had the knowledge, resources and services to deal effectively with civil and family legal matters. I emphasize that I do not have a “court – centric” view of what this knowledge in these resources and services include. They include a range of out-of-court services, including access to knowledge about the law and the legal process and both formal and informal dispute resolution services, including those available through the courts. I do not view access to justice…as simply access to litigation or even simply as access to lawyers, judges and courts, although these are, of course, aspects of when access to justice requires.”

The FJWG has adopted a definition of the “family justice system” which is consistent with this broad notion of access to justice. The family justice system is comprised of all laws, programs and services that meaningfully contribute to the resolution of family law issues. This includes public institutions such as the courts, government ministries, and legal aid service providers, as well as non-government agencies, lawyers, mediators and other private professionals who help families during the separation process.

Past Reports

The FJWG is very mindful of the many family justice reform reports that precede this one. These reports are remarkably consistent in their diagnosis of the problems and their prescriptions for change. A key theme of all reports is the place of adversarial (rights-based) and non-adversarial (interest-based) dispute resolution processes in the family justice system and the still untapped potential for non-adversarial values and consensual dispute resolution processes to enhance access to the family justice system.

Steps have been taken to respond to these reports across Canada and the Commonwealth and, in many respects the practice of family law looks very different today than it did 25 years ago. Changes to court rules and forms have made courts more accessible and judges have become increasingly involved in case management and settlement facilitation. Legal information programs, subsidized mediation and post-separation parenting programs are widespread. The legal profession has adopted non-adversarial approaches to family law disputes and processes like mediation and collaborative law are now widely used across Canada.

Despite these changes, reports and inquiries continue to call for further reform, saying that the changes to date, while welcome, are simply not enough. The reports continue to advocate for a more dramatic shift to non-adversarial approaches, calling for “drastic change”, a “fundamental overhaul” and a “paradigm shift”.

This report explores the relationship between the adversarial and non-adversarial paradigms and the need for the family justice system to integrate and utilize non- adversarial, problem- solving values even more fundamentally than it already has.

The Implementation Gap

The Working Group has attempted to grapple with the gap between the strongly worded recommendations of past family reports and the failure of justice systems to fully implement them. We see that to a significant extent, the ideas needed to make the family law system work better have already been articulated and we ask, what is getting in the way of the changes that are widely seen as necessary? The first conclusion we draw is that good ideas alone are not enough to change the system. As the title of this report suggests, we need to go “beyond wise words” to concrete action and full implementation of recommendations that have been on the books for some time now.

We identify two primary barriers to change. One is the limited resources available for the family justice system. Despite the pervasiveness of family justice problems, the general public, media and politicians are far more engaged with criminal law matters. This heightened interest fuels criminal law reform efforts and often translates into funding support for criminal justice as a priority over family law.

The implementation gap is also a function of the culture of the justice system and its incomplete embrace of non-adversarial or consensual dispute resolution processes. While progress has been made on this front, the potential of non-adversarial programs and consensual processes in family law has not yet been fully realized. Accordingly, we see further culture change as one of the more important options for enhanced access to family justice.

Guiding Principles

Our vision of a family justice system and the recommendations for change are based on these guiding principles:

  • Minimize conflict – Programs, services and procedures are designed to minimize conflict and its negative impact on children.
  • Collaboration – Programs, services and procedures encourage collaboration and CDR is at the centre of the family justice system, provided that judicial determination is readily available when needed.
  • Client Centred – The family justice system is designed for, and around the needs of the families that use it.
  • Empowered families – Families are, to the extent possible, empowered to assume responsibility for their own outcomes.
  • Integrated multidisciplinary services – Services to families going through separation and divorce are coordinated, integrated and multidisciplinary.
  • Early resolution – Information and services are available early so people can resolve their problems as quickly as possible.
  • Voice, fairness and safety – People with family justice problems have the opportunity to be heard and the services and processes offered to them are respectful, fair and safe.
  • Accessible – The family justice system is affordable, understandable and timely.
  • Proportional – Processes and services are proportional to the interests of any child affected, the importance of the issue, and the complexity of the case.

Informed by these principles, this report makes nine recommendations related specifically to the goal of entrenching consensual dispute resolution values and processes more firmly at the centre of the family justice system. We make a further twenty two recommendations relating to diverse aspects of the system, including:

  • services and administration;
  • courts organization;
  • substantive law;
  • court procedures;
  • post-resolution support; and
  • research to support evidence-based decision making.

Family law has a very broad reach. There is perhaps no single area of law that touches as many people. The quality or adequacy of a family’s encounter with the justice system can shape their lives and influence their wellbeing for the long term. Accordingly, we attempt throughout this report to look at the problems experienced by families, as well as the laws, services and procedures that our justice institutions offer them, primarily from their perspective. From this vantage point we see the imperative need for timely and affordable outcomes and the considerable financial and emotional cost to spouses, parents and children when this need is not met. From a broader social perspective we see the risks associated with insufficient access to family justice. Access to justice is a corollary of the rule of law and as is essential to the social and economic well-being of civil society.

B. Summary of Recommendations

These recommendations are not ranked in order of priority. Their order is determined by the organization of the paper.

Recommendation 1:

That stakeholders across the family justice system, led by the law schools, collaborate on a study of family law curricula and make recommendations for changes that would better prepare students by providing them with the unique knowledge and diverse skills needed to assist children and families through the contemporary family justice system.

Recommendation 2:

That changes to the family law curriculum be accompanied by a greater emphasis on CDR skills and knowledge across the entire law school curriculum.

Recommendation 3:

That Canadian law schools hire and develop more full-time professors with an interest in family law.

Recommendation 4:

That Law Societies recognize the unique knowledge and skills needed to practice family law by accepting training in these areas as meeting ongoing obligations for continuing professional development; and, that continuing legal education organizations should develop courses to support the full range of skills needed by family law lawyers.

Recommendation 5:

That Law Society regulation of family lawyers explicitly address and support the non- traditional knowledge, skills, abilities, traits and attitudes required by lawyers to optimally manage family law files.

Recommendation 6:

That the family law Bar in each jurisdiction review and consider adopting guidelines similar to those promulgated by the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association for lawyers practicing family law.

Recommendation 7:

That ministries of justice, Bar associations, law schools, mediators, collaborative practitioners, PLEI providers and – to the extent appropriate – the judiciary, contribute to and advocate for enhanced public education and understanding about the nature of collaborative values and the availability of CDR procedures in the family justice system.

Recommendation 8:

That the family justice system offer an array of dispute resolution options to help families resolve their disputes, including information, mediation, collaborative law, parenting coordination, and adjudication.

Recommendation 9:

That before filing a contested application in a family matter (but after filing initial pleadings), parties be required to participate in a single non-judicial CDR session. Rules should designate the types of processes that are included and ensure they are delivered by qualified professionals. Exemptions should be available where the parties have already participated in CDR, for cases involving family violence, or where it is otherwise urgent for one or both parties to appear before the court. Free or subsidized CDR services should be available to those who cannot afford them.

Recommendation 10:

That the provision of early, front-end services in the family justice system be expanded. This means:

  • making front-end services highly visible, easy to access and user-friendly, as has been done through initiatives such as the Family Law Information Centers in Alberta and Ontario, Justice Access Centres in British Columbia, and les Centres de justice de proximité in Quebec;
  • coordinating and integrating the delivery of all services for separating family whether provided by lawyers, governments or non-government organizations; and
  • allocating new resources and/or rebalancing and reallocating existing justice system resources in support of expanded front-end services.

Recommendation 11:

The FJWG supports recommendations made by other NAC Working Groups with respect to making early information available to citizens, and supports the following as particularly useful for families:

  • information that is accessible, in plain language, neutral and accurate;
  • information that responds to the needs of self-represented litigants; and
  • information that is available in a variety of forms including in-person (through law information centres and phone lines), online, and printed guides.

Recommendation 12:

Except in cases of urgency and consent orders, that information sessions be mandatory for self represented litigants and all parents with dependent children. The session should take place as early as possible and before parties can appear in court. At a minimum, the following information should be provided:

  • how to parent after separation and the effects of conflict on children;
  • basic legal information;
  • information about mediation and other procedural options; and
  • information about available non-legal family services.

Recommendation 13:

That triage services, including assessment, information and referral, be made available to people with family law problems.

Recommendation 14:

That legal aid be defined, for the purpose of both funding and service delivery, as consisting of a broad range of services and service providers, including:

  • full legal representation, partial representation, duty counsel, advice counsel, summary advice, brief services and limited scope retainers;
  • legal information and self help services, including guided self help;
  • mediation, parenting coordination, counselling; and
  • programs or services linking or coordinating legal help with non-legal services.

Recommendation 15:

That funding for family law legal aid be increased.

Recommendation 16:

That professional Codes of Conduct and court rules in all jurisdictions be reviewed to authorize and support the use of limited scope retainers.

Recommendation 17:

That jurisdictions expand reliance upon properly trained and supervised paralegals, law students, articling students, and non-lawyer experts to provide a range of services to families with legal problems.

Recommendation 18:

Recognizing the scale of unmet family law need, the individual and social cost of failing to meet that need and the existence of programs and services that have demonstrated their value to separating families, that funding be significantly enhanced for all family justice programs and services.

Recommendation 19:

Recognizing that each jurisdiction would have its own version of the unified court model, to meet the needs of families and children in each jurisdiction, that the two levels of government cooperate in the completion of unified family courts for all of Canada.

Recommendation 20:

That a unified family court retain the benefits of provincial family courts, including their distinctive and simplified procedures, and that it have its own simplified rules, forms and dispute resolution processes that are attuned to the distinctive needs and limited means of family law participants.

Recommendation 21:

That family courts adopt simplified procedures for smaller or more limited family law disputes.

Recommendation 22:

That the use of simplified, interactive court forms accompanied by easy to follow instructions be expanded.

Recommendation 23:

That specialized judges be appointed to hear family cases and that these judges have or be willing to acquire:

  • substantive and procedural expertise in family law;
  • the ability to bring strong dispute resolution skills to bear on family cases;
  • training in and sensitivity to the psychological and social dimensions of family law cases (in particular, family violence and the impact of separation and divorce on children); and
  • awareness of the range of family justice services available to the families appearing before them.

Recommendation 24:

That one judge preside over all pre-trial motions, conferences and hearings in family cases.

Recommendation 25:

That court rules committees, justice policy analysts and court administrators review legislation, rules, procedures and administrative mechanisms for ways to encourage a broader problem-solving approach to dispute resolution, especially in early stages, while minimizing the predisposition to manage all family issues as if they will be resolved at trial.

Recommendation 26:

That the following measures be considered:

  • each case be assessed and placed on different procedural track that is proportional and appropriate to the needs of the case;
  • enhance judicial discretion to impose proportional processes on the parties;
  • all court appearances be meaningful;
    parties be required (where possible)to agree on a common expert witness;
  • both courts and parties be encouraged, where appropriate, to engage in a short, focused hearing under oath and without affidavits or written briefs to allow the court to hear oral evidence and, thus, reduce the cost and time of preparing legal materials;
  • jurisdictions explore using non-judicial case managers to help the parties move their cases forward and, where appropriate, narrow and resolve many issues in a proceeding;
  • case managers should have and use the powers, in appropriate circumstances, to limit the number of issues to be tried and the number of witnesses to be examined;
  • judges should use costs awards more freely and more assertively to contain process and encourage reasonable behavior.

Recommendation 27:

That jurisdictions explore the use of less adversarial hearing models, including inquisitorial or modified inquisitorial models and, if appropriate, to pilot and evaluate such alternative models in Canada.

Recommendation 28:

That all justice system stakeholders support the exploration of the potential for the Internet and information technology to make family justice more affordable and accessible.

Recommendation 29:

That Canadian family law statutes encourage consensual dispute resolution processes and agreements as the norm in family law, and that the language of substantive law be revised to reflect that orientation.

Recommendation 30:

That substantive family laws provide more support for early and complete disclosure by providing for positive obligations to govern all stages of a case and serious consequences for failure to comply.

Recommendation 31:

That substantive family laws be simpler and offer more guidance by way of rules and presumptions, where appropriate.

Recommendation 32:

That existing post-resolution programs be expanded and that justice system policy- makers continue to explore additional ways to provide post-resolution support to families.

Recommendation 33:

That universities, ministries of justice, judicial and bar organizations, and non- government organizations cooperate in generating more and better empirical research into the operation and administration of the family justice system, particularly with respect to access to family justice.

To view the report in its entirety, please visit: