The creation of effective entry points requires a reimagining of the services to be delivered and the roles of various actors in the justice system. Among them are the need to make information more accessible, increased assistance with “self-help materials”, particularly for those who may need help for reasons of literacy, language, culture or lack of economic resources; alternatives to full-service representation by lawyers and service by legally trained persons other than lawyers; and throughout an appreciation that family disputants may have different responses to, expectations about and capacity to interact with the family justice system based on a range of backgrounds and characteristics; and that they may have problems that are not family legal problems, but that may have led to, exacerbated or prolonged the existence of family legal problems. In this chapter, we make suggestions about how these aspects of the family justice system might be improved. In the next chapter, we discuss and make recommendations about the creation of the multidisciplinary, multifunction (or integrated) centres we have referred to above and for which we believe that these suggestions are a precondition, as well as having merit on their own basis.
B. Changes to Facilitate the Development of the Multidisciplinary, Multifunction Centres
1. Effective Provision of Information
Based on what we have heard through consultations and submissions, although there has been an increase in information and as a number of stakeholders pointed out, there is actually a great deal of information, it is not always easy to access, navigate or understand for many people. We referred in Part One to Birnbaum and Bala’s 2011-2012 study of family litigants’ mixed experiences with the MAG website, for example. Some litigants found the website helpful, while others found it too complicated or difficult to translate from legal language.
The very fact of the volume of information and the number of stakeholders who develop and deliver information speaks to the lack of integration and coordination required to make information easily accessible and seamless to the user.
As the province moves toward greater access to the Internet for residents throughout the province, the web has become a primary tool for most people to find information. In its response to the Interim Report, the Ministry of the Attorney General highlighted the cost of print material that we had recommended be widely distributed to locations where people regularly go and suggested that a less costly alternative to producing and updating brochures might be a colourful sticker or bookmark to promote the availability of web-based materials. In its comments on the Interim Report, the Ministry of the Attorney General also proposed making contact with service providers such as YMCAs, the College of Physicians and Surgeons and community centres and encouraging these organizations to post a link to family law information on their web sites. We agree that these could be effective initial sources of information that people might see at times they are thinking about getting help for their family problems, rather than having to seek it out.
As we said previously, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s portal is a laudable step toward a better integration of certain kinds of information; however, it is not clear at this point whether the portal will function as a central “hub”. As we explain in Part One, the portal is not easily found and tends to focus on particular family problems and the assistance of lawyers. The location of the Mandatory Information Program and the Family Law Information Centres at courthouses (recognizing that the MIP can be accessed online) may be a disincentive for certain users to seek these programs out voluntarily or to find them helpful, depending on how early in the process they are looking for help. Legal Aid Ontario’s Family Law Information Program has many advantages but it is less likely to come to the attention of people if they are not inquiring into availability of legal aid, a later stage in the process than those who are trying to find information to begin the process.
Various sources of information have benefits, but it remains that it is almost if not actually overwhelming for many people looking for help. The proliferation of online information, while again of great benefit to certain groups, is also difficult to access for people lacking literacy, language or computer literacy skills, as well as people in parts of the province where dial-up access is still predominant. Going forward, the benefits of these various sources of information may be heightened and focused by leveraging the talent and expertise of all major stakeholders that develop information through the creation of a partnership or collaboration. The tasks are three: to restructure the sources of information to mesh with each other, taking the best from all the sources (this will reduce it, as well); designing it to flow more readily from the earliest to the later stages of the process; and indicating at various stages where appropriate assistance in understanding and applying it can be obtained.
A partnership or collaboration to develop a “hub” would appropriately include, for example, the Attorney General, Legal Aid Ontario, the Law Society and CLEO. Each of these stakeholders has made clear that they appreciate the importance of family law information and they have expertise to contribute to developing seamless and coordinated legal information in the following ways:
- The Ministry of the Attorney General has the mandate to develop and deliver family law services and has expertise in the rules and forms.
- Legal Aid Ontario has expertise in developing and delivering services to low-income Ontarians. Moreover, the Trebilcock Report underscored the need for Legal Aid Ontario to make itself more salient to middle-class citizens of Ontario. Taking a prominent role in a collaborative effort to improve the dissemination of legal information to all Ontarians is one way to fulfill this need.
- The Law Society’s mandate includes protecting the public, ensuring competence of its members and promoting access to justice. It can provide valuable information for the public about what to expect from legal services providers and can help to fulfill its “access to justice” mandate.
- CLEO has expertise in developing public legal information, as well as the cultural translation of information.
Any collaborative effort to improve the dissemination of legal information (which includes information about both process and substantive law) needs to address cultural and language issues in order to address the diversity of Ontarians. As we referred to previously, organizations such as CLEO and FLEW provide information directed at particular communities or for particular purposes and often in several languages. The response of the Toronto Lawyer’s Association to the Interim Report highlights the need for information in multiple languages:
TLA notes this task [providing legal information] is a more significant one for Toronto than for other areas of the province, because of the size and diversity of its population. Funding to create the on line and pamphlet format of information must be adequate to address the diverse language and cultures in Toronto in order to provide fair access to justice for all of its systems.
Women who are fleeing violent relationships also require specialized information. Indeed, one aspect in which many current sources do respond to need is that they either provide or link to information specifically about domestic violence, whether in different-sex or same-sex relationships.  The existing information for survivors of violence should also be available from the hub.
There is limited information available for children who are in the midst of their parents’ separation or divorce. As noted, the public body available to assist children whose parents are separating or divorcing is the Office of the Children’s Lawyer. While the mandate of the OCL to provide client service is limited by the provisions of the Courts of Justice Act, its expertise in dealing with children could contribute to developing age appropriate information for children.
The objective of more accessible and easily understood information is to increase the ability of individuals, at the early stage of their family problems, to make a preliminary decision about whether to address their to the potential issues arising from their family breakdown or what the next step should be. Increasing the availability of information in different languages and formats speaks to the challenges faced by Ontario’s diverse population. Creating an easy path toward the information, with assistance as needed, allows those who have a limited or no ability to pay for the services of a lawyer to be able to have a basic understanding of the issues, enabling an individual to make decisions about next steps. To the extent possible, the involvement of persons with the characteristics of those who need to use the information can make it more likely that it will be effective.
2. Improving Self-Help Tools
Good and accessible information is important regardless of the next step someone with a family dispute takes. The next step many people will take, especially if they cannot afford – or believe they cannot afford – a lawyer, will be to turn to additional materials intended to help people undertake their own resolution of the dispute, that is, self-help materials. Included in these materials are forms that individuals can complete online to file an application with the court or to calculate child support, for example. As with information more generally, however, it may be necessary to provide some form of facilitation for many users of self-help tools. According to Listening to Ontarians, many people want to solve legal problems on their own: one in three respondents among low and middle-class Ontarians said they prefer to resolve their legal needs by themselves with legal advice but not necessarily with the assistance of a legal professional. While studies have identified a number of concerns with the appropriateness of self-help for certain individuals, these same studies may promote the use of self-help materials under the right circumstances for the “right” users. We do need a better understanding of how people use and benefit from self-help materials.
We believe that provided self-help tools and services are one of a range of options available, they can be useful to certain classes of unrepresented litigants, particularly if facilitated (that is, users have access to assistance in understanding or using them). These materials appear to be most effective if they are delivered in coordination with supports such as community based organizations with knowledge or experience with self-help services; trained in-person support workers; and educational and literacy experts.
Given our focus on persons who have not yet entered or will not enter the court system, the assistance provided at the courts will not necessarily help. These unrepresented individuals will require knowledgeable assistance elsewhere. Legal actors such as the Ministry of the Attorney General, Legal Aid Ontario and CLEO all have experience in the development of the tools required for people in family disputes who are still trying to decide how to resolve their dispute.
At present the number of self-help tools and services in Ontario is limited. There are, however, other jurisdictions where self-help services have a longer history and could provide valuable guidance to Ontario. The increasing number of unrepresented litigants gave rise in the United States to programs catering to their needs. California and New York have been recognized as national leaders and innovators in developing and delivering