A. General Remarks
LCO consultations are generally open to all, with an emphasis on people living or working in Ontario or having relevant experience or expertise related to the province. As always, consultations were both an opportunity for the LCO to gather information as part of its research process and to engage in a relationship-building process that enhances its capacity to respond to the province’s population in all its diversity.
The LCO Consultation Paper was the main tool used to invite participation and explain the family project. This paper was circulated to a stakeholder list of around two hundred individuals and groups with whom the LCO had been in touch in a preliminary research phase that led to the selection of this research project. The Consultation Paper was also posted on the LCO website along with an online survey that allowed participants to answer the research questions it raised. Throughout the consultation period, the Project Head, in collaboration with the LCO Outreach Coordinator and others, conducted ongoing outreach activities to invite participation and obtain different perspectives on the project. Many individuals or groups demonstrated interest in family justice issues and volunteered to share their thoughts. The LCO was interested in hearing from both users and workers.
B. Reaching Out to Users
The LCO considered it crucial to hear users’ viewpoints. By users the LCO means people who faced family difficulties and attempted to find solutions through the family justice system. The LCO was able to conduct seven individual meetings with users (two in person and five by telephone), five group meetings with an average of six users (two in person; two by telephone) and three in person group meetings with a mix of users and workers. This represents close to a third of the consultation meetings. In addition, 30 users and workers responded to our online survey. The LCO was therefore able to include first-hand user experiences as part of its research.
One effective method to reach out to users was to ask workers to contact users they knew and, if users agreed, to recommend them for LCO interviews. Alternatively, workers could also set up user groups themselves, in which the Project Head would participate.
In addition to providing input from users, the process of reaching out to users through workers revealed an important consideration for the family justice project. This process revealed how important it is for workers to build trusting relationships with users. The LCO observed that some users were willing to participate and share stories with the LCO because they established a high degree of trust with the workers involved, whether these workers were community-based or in private practice. This trust in one worker or one organization was the focal point that allowed users to come together and share their experiences beyond their differences. It was instructive that groups who may have difficulty having conversations with one another can gather in a safe space to have important discussions, as a result of trusting relationships established by third parties. For example, one meeting led individuals of different genders, some of whom had faced domestic violence, and others who had rightly or wrongly been charged with domestic violence assaults (in situations that were of course unrelated to one another), to have respectful interactions with each other. In another example – a woman-only consultation meeting with victims of domestic violence – it was both the trust users had towards the workers who organized the consultation meeting and the fact of having had a similar experience and gender identification that made the consultation successful.
C. Reaching Out to Workers
Many workers came forward to discuss the family project. The LCO consulted with workers in the legal field (community legal or legal support workers, lawyers, mediators, arbitrators and judges) and in other fields (transitional support workers, social workers, therapists, financial advisors, supervised access workers, interpreters and police officers). The network of legal clinics across the province was particularly helpful in reaching out to workers in a wider range of regions, outside of Toronto and Ottawa. Many associations or community groups organized consultation meetings where they invited their membership. In short, the LCO conducted 17 individual meetings with workers, including 7 in person and 10 by telephone. The LCO also organized 17 group meetings, including 10 in person, 3 by telephone and 4 in person with others joining through conference call. In total, the LCO conducted 34 consultation meetings with workers.
In addition to the LCO consultation meetings, the OBA and the ADR Institute invited the Project Head to participate in their November 2009 Summit, which provided another opportunity for the LCO to discuss the project with other stakeholders.
D. Clarifying Concepts and Terminology
Part of the LCO’s approach was to develop key research terms. These terms were described in the Consultation Paper and included family justice process, entry points, users and clusters of problems, as well as workers and silo problems. Consultations allowed the LCO to test whether its use of certain concepts was similar to that of various users and workers, to ensure that recommendations can be formulated in a language that is meaningful to them. Consultation participants’ responses sometimes reinforced our conceptual choices and sometimes forced us to further define the vocabulary we chose to use. Discussing terminology also allowed the LCO to identify issues discussed in section III of this paper. The key concepts that were discussed were the following: family, family challenges and problems, as well as entry points.
The Consultation Paper acknowledged that people’s perceptions of what a family is have changed in the past decades. We purposely left the definition of family for consultation participants to define. However, in any effort to acknowledge the plurality of family models, there is always tension between being too general or too specific. Being general can allow for inclusiveness but can also overlook certain realities. Being specific permits focus on a chosen reality, while potentially preventing the acknowledgement of the bigger picture, including other realities that have yet to be recognized or have been ignored. An example of this tension arose in a consultation meeting with a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and intersexed (LGBTQI) group.
Our consultation with the LGBTQI group revealed that speaking about the family in general terms was not enough to bring light to realities faced by this group. The lack of specific mention of same-sex families and of challenges faced by LGBTQI family members who wanted to have or already had children, for example, made this group feel invisible in the consultation process. In other words, some members of the LGBTQI community believe that, in order to be inclusive, the definition of family needed to be more specific. This is largely due to the strong historical tendency to interpret family as a heterosexual unit consisting of rigidly defined gender roles. As the LCO’s focus in this research is not to provide a comprehensive definition of the term ‘family’, the LCO will use specific examples to illustrate how inclusive this term should be.
2. Challenges Versus Problems
In addition to the concept of family, as well as the advantages of exploring specific family models, consultations reinforced the importance of distinguishing between the concepts of “challenge” and “problem”. The consultation paper distinguished these two concepts, challenges being defined as less serious – although often complex – issues that tend to arise at happy times (when planning to live together, for example) and problems being more serious and usually arising when things go wrong (when trying to get divorced following a marriage that involved abusive relationships or when same-sex couples try to have children and face discrimination, for example). Distinguishing challenges from problems was a way for the LCO to broaden its approach to family justice and to put more emphasis on prevention and early intervention.
During consultations, using the term “challenge” was helpful to draw attention to issues that families do not always see as a potential source of problems. These challenges include making informed decisions about whether to share a bank account or to take on a certain number of hours of care giving work on a weekly basis, for example. When focusing on “problems,” the legal framework and the risks involved in leaving these challenges unsolved might not be as visible for everyone as they should be in order to prevent future problems. According to consultation participants, this lack of awareness or capacity to recognize family challenges is part of the larger issue of “legal literacy.” Failing to identify these risks and taking up the challenge of taking them into account can lead to extremely damaging future family disputes. For example, gendered consequences of certain models of family planning are notorious: if a woman removes herself from the workforce for a long time, she risks having trouble finding employment later; if a man disengages himself from caregiving activities, he may have trouble developing a relationship with his children later. As a mental health worker and mediator mentioned during consultations, if expectations are unclear throughout a long term relationship, the price of solving this dispute is likely to be high. From a law reform viewpoint, part of the issue is to develop a legal framework that does not only deal with family “problems” but also with all “challenges” faced by families, at various stages of their development. This legal framework would also be more effective if it took into account the “law” within the family and not simply state law. Consultations revealed that, in general, people have yet to see family law as a preventative tool. Much remains to be done to integrate family “challenges” within our legal framework. For these reasons, the LCO will continue distinguishing family “challenges” from “problems”.
3. Entry Points
Consultations also helped clarify the notion of “entry points”. Participants saw an obvious distinction between an entry point “where someone would first think of going when they face a family issue” (“category one”) and an entry point “that truly helps resolving the issue” (“category two”). Consultations demonstrated that there are unfortunately more of the first than of the second category of entry points. Part of the LCO project is to explore how to turn category one into category two entry points. When this is not possible, we may explore ways to better direct people to category two entry points, to avoid finding themselves at places that will not help them. These objectives can be achieved by better understanding various users’ needs, choosing appropriate service delivery models, providing better education and information about family services and developing quality control mechanisms for such services, which is of course not a simple task.