Improving Outcomes in Family Law

The barriers to access to justice in the arena of family law have been well-researched and frequently commented upon, both on these pages and in a myriad of academic papers and government commissioned reports. For the most part, I feel like there’s really not much left to add.

I’ve read the research. I’ve practiced in the area. I’ve spoken and assisted self-representing parties. I’ve delivered public legal education sessions on the subject. And I’ve concluded, quite some time ago, that what’s needed more than anything else in this area, is massive systemic reform. Family law processes and the laws that govern those processes need to be de-complexified and in most cases, removed from the formal dispute resolution processes of our courts. At the same time, regulators need to take a hard look at the balance between public protection and access to justice, removing unnecessary impediments to the latter while keeping in mind that the public is not protected when there’s no access to justice.

In this context, I was pleased to receive a news release from the Province of Manitoba last week as follows:

The Manitoba government is committing to reform the current family law system in Manitoba in order to make it more accessible, and improve wellness and outcomes for families, Justice Minister Heather Stefanson announced today.

“The time has come for Manitoba to put families first and make changes that improve the current system for family law,” said Stefanson. “The system can often be adversarial and irreparably damaging to families. The experience can be especially harmful for young children. Our government is prepared to make changes to the current model, which will greatly improve fairness and well-being for Manitobans who interact with the family law system.”

My old boss and the former CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba, Allan Fineblit has been appointed to head up the review, along with a roster of judges, lawyers and public interest representatives. Fineblit is quoted in the release as stating that:

“The current system in place for resolving family law matters does not do enough to promote the long-term wellness of families….It is also a system that is inaccessible and unaffordable for many Manitobans. Finding ways to reform the family law system is an opportunity to look at a fundamental shift toward a system that focuses on collaboration and the best interests of families.”

A report from the committee is due early next year along with “a detailed framework for a new administrative model for family law” with the goal that the report would inform legislation to be introduced in spring 2018.

Will this be the answer? I don’t know. But I’m hopeful. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Maybe, just maybe, this will help to close the access to justice gap in family law in Manitoba.