«Best Practices at Family Justice System Entry Points: Needs of Users and Responses of Workers in the Justice System CONSULTATION PAPER SEPTEMBER 2009 ...»
“Entry points” into this broadly defined family justice process framework are multiple and diverse. An entry point can be any person, service or physical location that someone needing help with family matters may encounter. Other research projects have used the term “access point”, which has a similar meaning.8 Examples of the earliest informal entry points may include a friend who happens to know a community centre for women, someone’s mailbox containing a court document, and a school bulletin board where a parent saw a posting about free family law information sessions. More formal entry points may include court-based Family Legal Information Centres (FLICs) and the Parent Information Sessions they offer, the 9-1-1 emergency phone line as well as a lawyer’s office. During consultations, the LCO would like to hear about what entry points people have come across while looking for a solution to their family problems or when attempting to design their family relationships to avoid future problems. It would also like to know what workers think may be key entry points for users where services are not yet offered. The LCO expects to learn about a wide range of entry points, especially since entry points are closely linked to people’s diverse identities and community connections.
As an example of culturally specific entry points, Iranian registrars and Ontario municipal offices currently serve as entry points for members of the Ontario Iranian communities.
An Iranian registrar office is where a person would go to receive help with Iranian and Canadian marriage and divorce.9 The registrar office might not be the initial entry point, however. Most people would learn about registrar offices through their informal networks. Others could, for example, go to an Ontario municipal office and get information about how to get married under Canadian law. They might also ask how they can get married under Iranian law. The municipality would then refer them to a list of religious officials authorized to solemnize marriages and provide contact information for the religious official chosen by the user.10 These two entry points, the Ontario municipal office and the local Iranian registrar are therefore directly connected. Iranian Ontarians rely on them to formalize their relationships.
Once the LCO identifies entry points like these, it will ask whether quality services are offered at these entry points and whether these entry points are the best locations to reach out to particular user groups. In the case of Iranian registrars, LCO research revealed that religious officials who run these registrars may be trained in Iranian law but not necessarily in Ontario and Canadian law.11 It may therefore be important for the province of Ontario to regulate services offered at these entry points so that workers obtain relevant training. The LCO also found that other locations may be more relevant to reach out to certain subgroup of the Ontario Iranian population. Schools, for example, may be more appropriate to reach out to Iranian women who do not go out a lot but definitely go to their children’s schools.12 Analyzing a wide variety of entry points will help the LCO identify best practices at the early stages of family problem resolution. The LCO invites consultation participants to share other culturally specific examples of entry points into the family justice system.
C. Users and Clusters of Problems
The targeted user population of this research includes all Ontarians, regardless of whether they already used the system or not. From an access to justice perspective, the LCO recognizes the diversity of needs across Ontario and will develop case studies that reflect the experiences of various user groups. It will conduct an intersectional analysis of submissions received by consultation participants.13 Moreover, the LCO will seek to
identify the specific “clusters of problems” experienced by each user group when facing a family problem.
The notion of clusters of problems has been used in previous research.14 In short, when users experience family problems, they do not only experience legal problems. They experience a range of problems of different natures that are interrelated: mental health, financial and legal problems, for example. Depending on their situation, different user groups will experience different clusters of problems and it is therefore important to consider these differences before thinking about solutions. Similar considerations apply to workers.
D. Workers and Silo Problems
If a cluster can be a useful image to think about the problems of users, silos can be a useful one to think about those of workers. Many workers within the family justice system face heavy workloads, time management issues and lack of resources that make it very difficult to work collaboratively with other professionals, regardless of their desire to do so.15 In addition, their professional roles and work culture may not necessarily help foster a collaborative environment.16 As a result, many work in silos. The LCO is therefore interested in learning more about the various difficulties workers experience in trying to respond to users’ needs. When considering how public legal education materials and high quality referral services may help fill gaps between these silos, for example, the LCO will also take into account the limits of their workplace environment and ask what systemic changes are necessary to be able to implement recommended changes.
Perhaps in some cases, workers will need to broaden their horizons to be able to work collaboratively. They may also have to change their usual practices and have more frequent contact with other members of the community to be able to make effective referrals.
IV. WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE OR ARE CURRENTLY DOING
During the past few years, a significant amount of work has been done to remedy deficiencies in family justice and improve access to justice in Ontario. The LCO is building on this knowledge and will continue conducting research about family justice initiatives in Ontario and elsewhere throughout the project. In bringing these initiatives to
the attention of consultation participants, the LCO seeks to highlight connections between its project and current or past projects conducted by other organizations. It also invites input from those who have participated in these projects. Finally, it invites leaders of other projects that are not cited in this paper to communicate with the LCO to explore common points and avoid duplication.
In November 2008, the Attorney General of Ontario, the Honourable Chris Bentley, introduced amendments to the Family Law Act to address domestic violence, child support and pension reform and these were given Royal Assent in May 2009.17 The Attorney has engaged in consultations about the family law system over the past year.
He recently announced that legal aid funding would be increased by $150 million over four years and that part of this funding will be allocated to family law process and to legal clinics serving people in poverty. The Attorney has also indicated that the government would focus on the distribution of information and on expediting dispute resolution, among other initiatives in the family area.18 As the LCO's own project on family law process proceeds, we will take into account developments arising from the Minister’s initiatives and welcome contributing to them, should the opportunity arise.
One of the most important reports produced in the area of family justice process in the past few years is the report prepared by Alfred A. Mamo, Peter G. Jaffe, and Debbie G.
Chiodo.19 Although focused on courts and interviews with workers, as opposed to the LCO project that will put specific emphasis on users, this report contains relevant information for the LCO project. The LCO project builds on many of the recommendations found in the Mamo, Jaffe and Chiodo Report such as ensuring the Family Law Information Centre (FLIC) be the main entry point into the family court system; realizing the full potential of mediation services; adapting to the reality of selfrepresented litigants; handling domestic violence and high conflict cases differently from other cases; sharing promising practices across the province and conducting a systematic and comprehensive review of the Ontario family justice delivery system.20 Embracing the Mamo, Jaffe and Chiodo Report’s recommendations, the Ontario Bar Association Family Law Section, the ADR Institute of Ontario and the Ontario Association for Family Mediation made a proposal to the Honourable Chris Bentley, Attorney General of Ontario, this year, for concrete implementation of these
recommendations.21 This group’s vision is that family courts should be the default option and not the entry point into the family justice system, except in cases of emergency such as domestic violence and urgent child and spousal support cases.22 This proposal also emphasizes that legal information, referral and intake triage systems, as well as less adversity and more collaboration within the justice system, are key elements to improve the family justice process. The LCO project will explore similar issues. However, it will explore a broader range of issues, including for example, challenges that arise at the moment of family formation in addition to problems related to family breakdown, and entry points, both formal and informal. The LCO will also put greater emphasis on users’ experiences within the system.
Prior to the Mamo, Jaffe and Chiodo Report, Justice Coulter A. Osborne produced a more general civil court focused report.23 Some recommendations found in the Osborne Report, especially about unrepresented litigants, the importance of civility in the legal profession and the use of technology in the justice system, apply to the LCO project.
Although the report does not focus specifically on family justice, when it comes to legal service delivery there are common grounds between civil and family justice.
The report prepare by Michael Trebilcock about Legal Aid Ontario is another important report in terms of access to justice. 24 In relation to family law, the Report pointed out that “[m]any submissions expressed particular concerns over the very restrictive access to legal aid assistance in family law matters.”25 It also revealed that many Ontario organizations are interested in service integration and multi-disciplinary clinics providing a single entry point for users.26 They considered this type of multi-facetted service an important component of successful early intervention.27 These observations are important for the LCO project. The LCO will continue exploring how Legal Aid Ontario can become a more effective entry point in the justice system.
Emerging from recommendations from the Osborne Report, the current Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project lead by Honourable R. Roy McMurtry, is another initiative that seeks to address similar concerns as the LCO project.28 This project seeks to provide a legal need assessment of low and middle-income users of the Civil Justice System.29 The Law Society of Upper Canada, Pro Bono Law Ontario, and Legal Aid Ontario have initiated this project to provide “a comprehensive, empirically based study of unmet legal
needs in Ontario”.30 The research is still in progress. It involves an extensive telephone survey of civil system users, focus group interviews with “front-line legal and social service providers”, and a mapping of existing services that enhance access to justice.31 With an expected release date of early 2010, the final report will seek to establish a “roadmap to help stakeholders in the legal service delivery system establish priorities, allot existing resources effectively and identify opportunities for enhanced collaboration and improvement”.32 In addition, this project’s definition of legal needs is very close to the LCO approach to family challenges and problems. They are defined as problems that are difficult to resolve.33 Moreover, the project acknowledges on the one hand that “not all problems with a legal dimension necessarily create legal needs” and on the other hand that there is a connection between legal and social needs.34 The timing of this Project Report’s release will allow the LCO to draw from it in examining more specifically the needs of family justice system users. The LCO work is likely to be complementary to the Ontario Civil Needs’ Project as it will analyze in greater detail one category of civil legal needs, relating to the family.
In line with the project of assessing needs across the province, Karen Cohl and George Thomson’s report Connecting Across Language and Distance: Linguistic and Rural Access to Legal Information and Services explores ways to increase access to justice across language and geographical barriers.35 Not surprisingly, most findings about accessibility found in this Report apply to the LCO project. These findings include the fact that vulnerable persons need legal services more than self-help; that family and child protection are priority areas of the law; that a system, as opposed to a single entity, with multiple access points needs to be created; that community organizations should play an important role in that system; and that a commitment to collaboration is necessary to improve access to justice.36 Some of these ideas have come back in many reports and the LCO hopes to design best practices that will help implement them.
Although the LCO explores similar access to justice issues as did the Linguistic and Rural Access Project, its project is different in that it focuses more narrowly on family issues. The linguistic and rural access project also did not explore Aboriginal peoples’ needs37, suggesting that a separate project addressing their needs should be undertaken, which is something that the LCO hopes to do, even though it agrees that Aboriginal peoples’ issues are complex and may require special study. The Linguistic