How do you get your family law matter dealt with in these COVID-19 circumstances, where the family court’s services have been either shut down or now confronted with a serious backlog?
The Ottawa Virtual Family Law Project is an online directory of senior family law practitioners in Ottawa and area, formed in April, 2020. It is not affiliated with any organization or the court system, but works with the local judiciary where possible. The project offers private family dispute resolution services, including:
- Private Case Conferences
- Private Settlement Conferences
- Early Neutral Evaluation
- Collaborative Family Law
- Screening for Domestic Violence, Abuse & Power Imbalances
- Parenting Coordination
The purpose of the Virtual Family Law project is:
- To provide a list of senior family law practitioners and information about the particular family dispute resolution services that they provide;
- To be accessed by lawyers and unrepresented clients, to move their family law cases forward, to the next step or final resolution, at a time when the family courts are dealing with a limited number of matters, and when a back log of cases is building up;
- To provide the opportunity to take “next steps”, which will provide families with more certainty and predictability, and hopefully reduce some of the extreme tension and anxiety that separated families have been experiencing in the current legal limbo; and
- to continue to offer those services, because when the public court system resumes normal operation, the back log will be enormous.
What are those potential next steps?
They can differ for every case but can include:
- creating a temporary parenting schedule
- putting in place temporary child and / or spousal support arrangements
- identifying the financial disclosure that is required to address support and property issues
- making decisions about occupation of the matrimonial home
- making decisions about listing a home for sale
- helping families make decisions about children’s return to daycare
- helping families navigate some of the uncertainty created by all of the information disbursed by federal, provincial and municipal governments relating to COVID-19
- negotiating equalization payments
- facilitating the physical separation of parties
Who are the lawyers?
In all cases the lawyers must be in good standing with the Law Society of Ontario and have 10 years plus of experience practicing Family Law, since their call to the bar. Also, there are additional eligibility criteria, depending on the particular dispute resolution service provided.
What exactly are some of those services?
- Arbitration is an alternative dispute resolution process, operating under the Arbitration Act and the Family Law Act. The arbitrator reviews the evidence and arguments of each party in order to reach a decision that is binding on the parties. It is private, similar to a court proceeding but is quicker and less formal.
- Collaborative Family Law is a process wherein each party hires a specially trained lawyer to assist with negotiations in a respectful non-confrontational manner. The parties and lawyers sign an agreement that includes a provision that they will not go to court, as well as guidelines for conducting negotiations that foster co-operation, respect and safety. It espouses to focus on interests, rather than legal rights per se.
- Domestic Violence Screening is required as a step in certain types of family dispute resolution services. The qualified “screener” screens for domestic violence, abuse and power imbalances to ensure that the process can proceed in an appropriate manner.
- Early Neutral Evaluation is a process where an experienced third party meets with the parties and their lawyers, and provides feedback on the positions put forward by the parties on their different issues. It provides a without prejudice assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of one’s case. Having this important information can enable the parties to negotiate a more effective settlement of their issues.
- Mediation is a way of helping people resolve issues relating to parenting, separation, abd financial matters. A trained family mediator helps people identify issues and work out their own solutions. Parties can try mediation before they consider starting a court case, or at any time during a court case.
- Mediation – Arbitration is an alternative dispute resolution process that uses mediation and arbitration to resolve issues without going to court. It is sometimes called “med-arb”. The parties agree to try to resolve the issues through mediation but are aware that, failing agreement, the process changes to arbitration, where the issues are decided for them.
- A Case Conference is a required step in every family law court proceeding that is defended. It must take place before a party can bring a motion to the court for relief, unless urgency is the basis for a motion. With the back log of cases, a private case conference can be brought on quicker, and will be recognized by the court as a valid step. Case conferences are intended to identify what is in dispute, and what is agreed upon, explore ways to resolve the issues in dispute, provide for disclosure of relevant information and evidence and set a timetable for events in the proceeding.
- Parenting Coordination. A parenting coordinator is person who helps parents resolve day to day conflicts about their parenting arrangements or parenting orders. The “PC” does not decide major issues like custody or access, rather they help the parties with following parts of their agreement, or court order that are about parenting. They can decide minor issues such as small changes around holiday times, scheduling activities, how children’s clothing moves between homes. It is similar to med-arb, related to parenting.
- A Settlement Conference is a near final step in a court proceeding, prior to trial. An experienced family law practitioner provides settlement advice and guidance to the parties on the merits of their case, in the same way that a judge does. A private settlement conference can be convened much quicker than a court arranged settlement conference. Once conducted it satisfies the requirement of holding a settlement conference and the case can be set down for trial.
By now, most people are familiar with Zoom, in the COVID-19 situation. These on line services work well and for the participants it is a valuable means to move their family matter ahead. When COVID-19 is over, these services will continue to be available.