We’ve been hearing about a lot of big changes coming to the Ontario family court system, and we’re optimistic that these new changes will make the system more accessible and less confusing to the people who require legal services. Attorney General Yasir Naqvi has said that modernizing the justice system will be one of his main focuses, as this will create a more functional and practical system for everyone. But what does modernization mean anyway? And how might it help you? We spoke with the Office of the Attonery Gerenal to find out, and this is what we learned.
1. Could you highlight some of the biggest issues you think are impeding access to justice when it comes to family law and family court in Ontario?
We are aware that the family court process can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive for families who are already in the midst of a great deal of stress. As identified by Justice Bonkalo in her review, individuals face emotional and psychological strain in navigating the justice system without legal assistance, but cannot afford to retain, or continue to retain, legal counsel.
Over the past five years, the ministry has worked hard to strengthen the family law process and improve access to justice by making the system easier to use, less confrontational and more affordable. Some of the reforms the ministry has implemented with its justice partners include expanding family mediation and information services, amending the Family Law Rules and forms to improve disclosure, streamlining process and enhancing access to legal advice and representation.
We also continue to move forward with modernization projects and are committed to continuing to enhance electronic access to services within the justice system and improve access to justice for all Ontarians. For example:
* The ministry recently launched an easy-to-use online service that allows parents to set up or change child support payments without having to go to court. More information can be found at https://www.ontario.ca/page/set-up-or-update-child-support-online
* The Family Justice Table reported on how the use of technology can increase access to justice and online family justice information in family cases. Work is underway to assess the recommendations made relating to the simplification of the Family Law Rules and forms. We are also introducing public access to computers and printers in fourteen Family Law Information Centres across Ontario.
Although we have made important strides, we recognize that there is more work to do to improve family justice services. It is part of our ministry’s mandate to continue to work with our justice partners and other partner ministries on family law reform, with a focus on creating a holistic and modern system that promotes family health and access to justice.
One comment that we hear consistently from the family law community is that the family justice system would benefit from a triage process. Work is now underway in partnership with the Offices of the Superior Court of Justice and Ontario Court of Justice to develop plans and a service model for family court triage in Ontario. Triage would provide more legal and non-legal information and service to families early in their family law matter to better support them in reaching resolutions. It is also hoped that this triage process will promote increased access to resources such a procedural information, mediation, domestic violence support, document preparation assistance, legal advice, mental health support counselling and housing resources.
We are eager to move forward with province-wide expansion of the Unified Family Court (UFC). In anticipation of a federal government call for proposals from the provinces and territories, the Ontario government (together with the leadership of the Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Justice) have formed a working group to develop a proposal for UFC expansion. The goal of the working group is to develop recommendations for a phased province-wide expansion proposal. Given that the appointment of judges to the UFC falls under federal jurisdiction, Ontario will need support from the Government of Canada to move forward with its expansion plans. The Attorney General recently wrote to federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould directly to support these plans. You can read this letter and more about Ontario’s plan at https://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/pubs/2017-03-06-unified-family-court_letter.php.
The report from the review of the provision of family legal services, led by Justice Annemarie Bonkalo, was submitted on December 31, 2016 to the Attorney General and the Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada. We are presently seeking public feedback on Justice Bonkalo’s recommendations, and will be releasing an action plan by the fall of 2017.
We are optimistic that these important initiatives will seek to improve the experience of Ontarians as they navigate the family court system.
2. Though Mr. Naqvi has only held the title of Attorney General for a short time, have any immediate changes been made to the family court system to better serve citizens?
Ontario is expanding access to legal aid. When our strategy is fully implemented, an additional one million low-income Ontarians will be eligible for legal aid services. As of April 1, 2017, the income eligibility threshold increased by another 6 per cent. This is the fourth increase to take place under our strategy.
The ministry continues to work with the bar and the judiciary to improve and modernize Ontario’s justice system, making it more accessible and affordable for the public:
* We introduced an easy-to-use online tool that allows parents to set up or change child support payments, without having to go to court.
* Now that daily court lists are available online, over one million visitors a year go to OntarioCourtDates.ca to find out where and when they need to go to court.
* We changed the law to allow people to electronically sign documents and to email them to their real estate agents or lawyers.
* The ministry is also moving forward with plans to introduce electronic filing in Superior Court matters, which will create additional efficiencies to administrative processes in the Superior Court.
3. One of the Attorney General’s most ambitious goals is to modernize the court system. Introducing more technology is clearly a big part of executing this plan, but what else must be done? And, what does modernizing the court system actually mean?
Modernizing the justice system means providing better justice services for Ontario: simpler, faster, and smarter. We will also use technology to streamline court processes, reduce delay, and make sharing information between justice sector participants easier.
To achieve our goal, we are moving forward with modernization projects that are incremental, targeted, and are designed with the user in mind. The work we are doing now will lay the foundation for the next generation of justice services.