Early resolution for family matters | Kurt Sandstrom
Tuesday, April 16, 2019 @ 1:43 PM | By Kurt Sandstrom
The provincial court and the Ministry are working together on an initiative to change the rules of procedure for family matters in provincial court. Early implementation of key aspects of the model will be launched in Victoria, where funding for additional services has been provided.
The model helps families focus on earlier, more co-operative resolution. Where issues are not fully resolved, they will be clarified and narrowed and families will be better prepared to proceed. Assisting parents to reduce conflict and achieve a collaborative resolution positions them to keep the children’s best interests front and centre.
The following principles guide the model:
- The family justice system is designed for and around, the needs of families that use it.
- Programs, services and procedures are designed to minimize conflict and its negative impact on children.
- Programs, services and procedures encourage collaboration, and consensual dispute resolution is at the centre of the family justice system, provided judicial determination is readily available when needed.
- Families are, to the extent possible, empowered to assume responsibility for their own outcomes.
- Integrated multidisciplinary service design — services to families going through separation and divorce are co-ordinated, integrated and multidisciplinary.
- Information and services are available early so people can resolve their problems as quickly as possible.
- People with family justice problems have the opportunity to be heard and services and processes offered to them are respectful, fair and safe.
The first step in filing a claim is to complete a Notice to Resolve, which will prompt the individual to attend an early needs assessment at the justice access centre, where families’ legal and non-legal needs are considered from a holistic perspective. Information about the family justice process will be provided and referrals will be made to a variety of resources, including debt, housing and mental health services, as well as referrals to early legal advice.
During the assessment phase clients will be screened for safety and risks of family violence. Assessment involves talking to both parties to a family dispute and exploring the parties’ suitability for consensual dispute resolution (CDR). If, however, the situation is urgent (e.g. an application for protection order, or an extraordinary parenting matter such as removal of a child from the jurisdiction), parties will be assisted in making an application before a judge and they can have their urgent matter addressed before proceeding to assessment.
Parties will be required to participate in one CDR session, unless it is determined to be inappropriate. CDR will provide parties with an opportunity to discuss their issues and explore whether, and on which issues, they may be able to come to agreement. In some instances this will result in full resolution of issues; other times it could lead to a narrowing and better mutual understanding of issues moving forward to case management and adjudication.
CDR can be done with a family justice counsellor; with a private mediator, if the party chooses to pay privately; or, with a collaborative law professional.
All families with child-related matters seeking to resolve their issues in provincial court will be required to attend a parenting information and education program, such as the Parenting After Separation program, before initiating a court process on a contested matter, unless they cannot meet this requirement, for example due to literacy, language, or location. Parenting education programs are designed to support informed and child-focused decisions, including navigating parenting and communication as parties restructure their families.
If the parties have gone through needs assessment, consensual dispute resolution and parenting education, and still have unresolved issues, then the matter can be set down before the court. The first step would be to attend a family management conference, which will replace a first appearance. The family management conference will be a more active case management process designed to help parties achieve greater readiness, explore opportunities for resolution, make interim orders and guide the parties on their next steps in the court process.
The court and the Ministry are taking a continuous improvement approach to the Victoria Early Resolution and Case Management Model and will be seeking feedback as part of ongoing evaluation efforts to help ensure this initiative meets the goals of assisting families in resolving their family matters in ways which better meet their needs.
Kurt Sandstrom has been the assistant deputy minister of Justice Services Branch, with the B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General, since June 2016. He also teaches Law, Public Policy and Dispute Resolution at the University of Victoria.
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