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A Multidisciplinary Approach to Meeting Family Justice Needs

In most provinces as well as nationally, rethinking access to justice for meeting the legal needs of Canadian families is a central policy agenda item. Law reform commissions as well as self-standing initiatives such as the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters have made this sort of rethinking a priority for moving forward. One of the most innovative new approaches is a multidisciplinary approach to meeting family justice needs. This approach stresses both the diversity of the legal needs of Canadian families and the fluidity of those needs. Sometimes, among professionals, there is an inclination to classify and categorize the needs of families in ways that correspond to the professionalization of service providers. Some needs might be classified as educational, others health, others still income security or housing, yet others legal. And even among legal professionals, there is a tendency to further classify the legal needs into categories such as immigration, family, employment, civil, and criminal.

Whilst these classification schemes may make sense for providers, they rarely map on to how families themselves perceive or experience their needs. For most families, problems cluster together. An immigration problem flows into an educational problem. Illegal immigrants may worry, for example, about enrolling their children in school. Likewise, unemployment may lead to falling behind in the rent, leading to an eviction notice.

A vision of multidisciplinary paths to family justice involves making linkages between legal and non-legal services in a manner that reflects how families perceive or experience their needs. In particular, this vision entails integrating legal services for families into sites that already offer other sorts of family services.

A powerful expression of this vision is the establishment in Canada of one-stop sites for Canadian families where they can receive services from a diverse profile of professionals including legal professionals – lawyers or paralegals — who could offer the provision of low-level family legal services oriented towards legal information, legal consultation, and informal community mediation and other forms of dispute resolution. These sorts of sites already exist to some degree in community health centres, which often offer for low-income clients not only health services but also early childhood education services, immigration advice, housing services, and guidance around income support programs like social assistance or public pensions. Likewise, in the area of domestic violence, Canada is beginning to develop exemplar models like the the Family Violence Project of Waterloo Region, which recognizes the multi-dimensions of the needs that arise in situations of family violence. Some of the urban Aboriginal family services centres also provide models for this sort of multidisciplinary approach to the justice needs of families.

The challenges of implementing this sort of vision are numerous. One of the most basic is the requirement that those within the legal profession including lawyers and judges see the provision of legal services as part of a seamless system of social services for families. This means working with a team of other professionals – teachers, social workers, psychologists, physicians, police – in a manner that respects the valuable contributions of all members of the team. For some lawyers and judges, this has proven to be surprisingly easy. Yet, unfortunately, for many others there is a need for much more professional development.

Les Jacobs, Academic Director


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