Over fall 2009 and winter 2010, the LCO conducted public consultations as part of its family law project entitled “Best Practices at Family Justice System Entry Points: Needs of Users and Responses of Workers within the Justice System.” This research project focuses on the early stages of solving a family challenge or problem. It explores the first places, or “entry points”, where Ontarians go when they face such issues. Examples of entry points include – but are not restricted to – the following: personal networks of family and friends, schools, workplaces, community-based organizations, mental health, legal and policing services. The LCO was interested in better understanding the experiences of people who use or work at various entry points, whether actually in the family legal system or not. Consultation participants’ comments, found in this description of the consultation results, will help shape our last phase of research, which will lead to elaborating recommendations for family justice reform.
The questions covered during consultations were explained in detail in a Consultation Paper published in September 2009 and still available on the LCO website. The LCO conducted 49 individual or group consultations meetings, in person or by telephone, in English or French language. It also received written submissions by e-mail, mail and through an online survey. People participated from across the province, including Aurora, Hamilton, Lanark County, Moosonee, Manitoulin Island, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Toronto and Walkerton, for example. All told, the LCO has heard from about 100 individuals.
The consultations allowed the LCO to discuss key terms used in the research. For example, participants believed that it was important to understand the notion of a family as broad, diverse and inclusive. For some, this meant specifying family issues, particularly parental issues, facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer people. For others, this meant recognizing the economic disparity between Ontario families and identifying groups, such as Aboriginal or racialized newcomers’ families, for whom different clusters of problems are associated with family challenges and problems.
Participants also discussed differences between family “challenges” and family “problems”. The LCO defined family challenges as less serious (although often complex) issues that tend to arise at happy times in family life. Using the expression “family challenges” helped people think about family formation – as opposed to breakdown – with challenges such as understanding the consequences of living with or marrying someone. As the Ontario family law framework still focuses mainly on family breakdown, Ontarians do not typically understand these challenges as having legal dimensions worth addressing to prevent future problems. Finally, participants discussed the meaning of “entry points”. They pointed out the difference between an entry point “where someone would first think of going when they face a family issue” and an entry point “that truly helps resolving the issue”.
Consultations also helped identify some of the most significant issues that matter to Ontarians when trying to solve a family challenge or problem. Acknowledging the emotional dimensions of such challenges and problems appeared to be key at any stage in family life. The LCO heard adults, some of whom are parents, and children, talk about the emotional scars left by family disputes and the difficulty of dealing with mental health, legal and financial problems at the same time. We also heard professionals discuss their strategies to help people cope with their emotions while providing them with the required services. These discussions made clear that there is a need for a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to entry point service delivery, to address the various dimensions of family challenges and problems.
Moreover, consultation participants helped the LCO identify factors to consider in developing recommendations for reform. Some of these factors are connected to broad underlying social issues. Others specifically relate to service delivery in the family justice area. The broad social factors mentioned by participants included the lack of resources amongst Ontario families and of government funds to provide affordable family justice services. Participants also discussed their and others’ resistance to use prevention and early intervention mechanisms, such as cohabitation agreements or counselling services. In addition, participants discussed sensitive issues, such as violence and bullying between family members, which are related to the power dynamics at play within families. Stories illustrated how family power dynamics are influenced by variables such as gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, culture, religion, immigration status and economic pressure, to name only a few. Talking to children and youth helped the LCO understand how private and public education about gender identity and sexuality plays a role in reinforcing these social problems.
Participants recommended reform of family service delivery, including
· the level of confidentiality and type of expertise necessary to solve family challenges and problems;
· whether services should be voluntary or mandatory;
· how legal culture influences the relationship between lawyers and users, between lawyers and other professionals, and between judges, users and other professionals;
· the need for assistance in navigating the family justice system; and
· a better response to children and youth in the family justice system.
One of the most striking aspects of consultations was to hear users and workers share their experiences at family justice entry points, especially when these stories came from different regions in the province. Most stories involve a linguistic, cultural, gender and economic component. They also often involve situations where there is a lack of services beyond entry point level, which means that problems may be identified but not solved.
This report includes examples of such stories. One involved a woman in her fifties who speaks only Chinese, living “separately” from her husband, but in the same home. Since the tenants pay her husband, she has no money. Her husband threatens her. She does not want to call the police, cannot find Chinese-speaking lawyers she can afford or who would take her case on a pro-bono basis and while she finds a legal clinic with Chinese-speaking staff, they do not offer the services she needs. She has concluded that she should focus on survival rather than pay for lawyers unless they can truly resolve her problems.
Ontarians like this woman face serious barriers to family justice. Because of the complexity of addressing family issues, as well as the cost of legal services, many Ontarians live with unsolved family challenges and problems, which in turn have a cost for the province. In some cases, however, challenges and problems are not so complicated that they cannot be resolved. In these cases, it is more a question of developing appropriate information and referral systems at entry points, and introducing technology that can give Ontarians from remote regions better access to resources that benefit others who live in large urban centers.
When it comes to discussing the details of various possible service delivery models, most users are looking for affordable, effective and timely services. According to workers, however, users do not always appreciate the complexity of the challenges or problems they face. Their problems are often multi-dimensional, which leads workers to believe that more efforts should be deployed in developing multidisciplinary services, as well as networking, information sharing, screening, referral and fee systems.
Some regions in Ontario have taken the lead in implementing well-functioning sliding scale family services or using technology to reduce the cost and increase accessibility of services. Despite these efforts, the LCO noted that the profound inequalities between different regions of Ontario in terms of access to publicly-funded services makes the task of developing appropriate initiatives province-wide very difficult. For example, although LAO programs such as certificates for family law advice were reported to be far from perfect, the absence of LAO services in some regions would mean the end of access to any kind of legal services in these regions. As a large part of family justice services are delivered by the private sector, service delivery in that sector also needs to be more flexible. The main needs that were identified were that private legal practitioners collaborate with practitioners in other fields and offer different fee arrangements to suit a broader range of clients with different financial means.
In short, the LCO public consultations indicate that prevention and early intervention, through the development and better management of entry point services, can help resolve family challenges and problems in a more effective way and prevent solvable problems from becoming unsolvable. Consultation participants repeatedly said that “they wished they had known this and that earlier” and “they wished they had been directed to the right service earlier”.
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