Justices seek to scrap family court

TheStar.com – Ontario – Justices seek to scrap family court: Custody battles and related disputes should be heard under one roof, they say
September 10, 2008 . Tracey Tyler, Legal Affairs Reporter

Two of Ontario’s chief justices are calling for the province’s family court system to be scrapped and replaced with a new model that would see custody and property disputes decided by judges housed in the same courthouse, alongside a variety of family support services.

Family breakdowns often involve complex social problems that need co-ordinated responses from the judiciary and government agencies, along with more funding, Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler said.

“The pace of new funding must increase, in recognition of the fact that judicial intervention is only part of what is needed to cope with family breakdown and child protection,” he said in a speech in Toronto yesterday to mark the opening of Ontario’s courts for 2008-09.

Addressing a courtroom packed with judges and lawyers, Winkler and Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of the Ontario Court of Justice called for an expansion of “unified family courts.”

It would end the practice, still common in many parts of the province, including Toronto, of having one type of family law problem – such as a custody battle – dealt with by a provincially appointed judge in one courthouse and a related problem – a money or property dispute – decided by a federally appointed judge in a superior court.

While family law cases have been shifted into a single “unified” court in 17 locations around the province, merging family courts across Ontario would require co-operation from Ottawa, which appoints and funds superior court judges.

Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley agrees with bringing all family court matters and services under the same roof, which would make it easier for members of the public to resolve these legal problems, said Sheamus Murphy, his senior adviser, adding, however, that Ottawa has yet to show its support.

Murphy said he couldn’t estimate how much Ontario spends on family courts because their operations are meshed with civil and criminal courts. The federal government, he said, provides “very limited funding” for family justice services, even though it has sole jurisdiction over legislation governing divorce and family property issues.

Winkler has suggested it’s unfair for people who have been strained by litigation and perhaps given up a day’s pay to attend court to have the added burden of trying to find the right courthouse.

There’s “a large appetite” for a broader review of the family court system, he added in his speech yesterday. Bonkalo put it more plainly, calling for “a full review of family justice in Ontario,” although it wasn’t clear from her speech what she believes must be reviewed.

Bonkalo did note, however, that family law cases are often complex and time-consuming and the growing number of people representing themselves in court without lawyers is adding to the difficulties.

A shortage of superior court judges has also been blamed for court delays that drive up the cost of resolving family law disputes. Chief Justice Heather Smith of the Superior Court of Justice noted, however, that two dozen judicial vacancies on her bench have been filled by the federal government.

Parliament is allowing the appointment of a further 20 judges to superior courts across Canada, including eight in Ontario. Six of those eight will be sworn in this week, Smith said.

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