FREDERICTON - Justice Minister T.J. Burke says a report calling for major reforms to the province's family justice system will completely change the face of how such cases are dealt with, adding that it's the most important initiative he's undertaken in his judicial portfolio thus far.
The taskforce report urges the family law system to approach cases outside of a traditional courtroom setting whenever possible, recommending greater mediation in such cases.
Many of the recommendations are based on a family law pilot program in Ottawa, where families are required to attend a 'triage' day without filing any affidavits for a day in court. In Ottawa, families fill out a form describing the type of relief they're requesting and meet with a mediator instead of a judge. Families only file a short-form affidavit and appear before a judge if no agreement can be reached. Afterward, if an agreement still can't be reached, the case moves on to the regular court process.
The taskforce offered 50 recommendations it said would create better access to family law in the province. Burke said his department would investigate every recommendation offered and carry out cost analyses for each one.
Burke said he was committed to overall reform.
Retired family court judge Raymond Guerette served as the task force's chairman. Guerette said the report's main priority is to elevate the well-being of families, particularly children. He said that neither families nor children are considered top priority in the current system because of the adversity of the entire family court set-up.
Guerette added the quicker the family law system is reformed, the better.
"The object is to keep the case moving through the system because, right now, it takes too long to get anything done," he said. "Sometimes a mediator will pick up the phone and resolve a visitation problem ... You don't need a notice of motion or an affidavit or a court hearing six months down the road for that."
Burke said efficiencies would certainly be found in a reformed system. The department's plan is to implement elements of the report in one of the province's judicial districts by the end of September, likely in place where the family court docket is severely backlogged.
Mary-Eileen Flanagan, a member of the task force, said their work wasn't done and they'd be continuing to work to see the reforms come to light. "We know the horizons are short and we said we'd be on (the minister's) speed dial between now and the end of September," she said.
Progressive Conservative MLA Tony Huntjens, the Opposition justice critic, said he was impressed with the report and its recommendations, adding that he hoped it wouldn't be "like other reports that end up collecting dust on the shelf."
From the CBC
Last Updated: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | 11:01 AM AT
Justice Minister T.J. Burke said he accepts the findings of a scathing report that says the family court system is dysfunctional — and he is promising action.
'I have no doubt in my mind that we are make our best efforts to adopt as many of them as we possibly can over the next 24 to 48 months.'— T.J. Burke, justice minister
The Access to Family Justice Task Force report said families are facing unacceptable delays in seeing their cases resolved because the system is overwhelmed by paperwork and by procedure.
Burke said he is striking a committee which will look at how to implement the recommendations from the report. As well, a pilot project will start this fall intended to ease the pressure on the family court division.
"I have no doubt in my mind that we are make our best efforts to adopt as many of them as we possibly can over the next 24 to 48 months," Burke said.
Burke said he accepts the report's main point that spending a bit more on alternatives at the outset will cost the system less overall.
Justice Raymond Guerette, the task force's chairman, said in the report —which was released Tuesday and includes 50 recommendations — that the family justice system has deteriorated over the last 15 years.
The report attributed the worsening state of the system to a variety of factors, including an almost 50 per cent jump in people without lawyers, an escalation in the number and complexity of hearings in child protection cases, and "perceived procedural requirements."
"The object is to keep the case moving through the system, because right now it takes too long to get anything done," Guerette told reporters.
Court workers spend too much time on paperwork
The report said court workers, including social workers, spend most of their time on paperwork, rather than resolving family disputes.
'Being a single parent is bad enough as it is, without this family court adding to their problems.'— Judge Raymond Guerette
The best interests of children are secondary to what the report calls "excessive procedural demands."
The report proposed a triage model that would divert some cases to mediation or to other services to lower the court's caseload.
Guerette said that recommendation will save money in the long run.
"Our finding is that the longer a case remains in the judicial system, the more it costs," he said.
However, the province recently cut some of the very services in the recent budget that the task force report says are needed, such as mediators.
With the problems facing the court process, Guerette said the system is insensitive to what families are going through.
"It's insensitive, because it doesn't take into account the anguish and the anxiety of single parents who have to go through the system to obtain a remedy or some relief. Being a single parent is bad enough as it is, without this family court adding to their problems."