Revived interest in Alberta for Unified Family Court

By: John-Paul Boyd

In a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Edmonton Journal, Premier Dave Hancock expressed his enthusiasm for a unified family court. Quoting from an article published in the Calgary Herald in 27 May 2014

“It would be more efficient if we had — I’m going to say this out loud and get in trouble — a unified family court, so that there was one court that dealt with all of the issues with respect to child, family, divorce, and property,” Hancock last week told the Edmonton Journal editorial board.

“It would be more effective and efficient, and it would be better justice.”

Asked why he would get in trouble, Hancock said: “There’s a war between the provincial court and the Court of Queen’s Bench, as to who gets control.”

The article cites the Natikonal Action Committee final report as “issuing a clarion call for unified courts.”

The notion of a “war” between the province’s trial courts was unlikely to go without a reply from the bench. A follow-up piece was published this morning in the Calgary Herald, according to which “the top judges for Alberta’s two trial courts agree it’s time to revive the idea of creating a single court to deal with all family law cases.

“There’s a war between the provincial court and the Court of Queen’s Bench, as to who gets control,” Hancock said.

However, Matchett and his counterpart, Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Neil Wittmann, said there’s no such conflict.

“I don’t think the relationship between our court and the provincial court has ever been better,” Wittmann said.

Nor is their mutual willingness to consider a unified family court a product of Hancock’s recent comments, added Wittmann.

When provincial justice officials gathered in Edmonton last November for a forum on improving access to justice, Wittmann and Matchett said they discussed a unified family court as a potential step toward that goal.

“We both said, ‘Maybe we should look at the unified family court model again,’ ” said Wittmann.

However, agreeing to study a unified family court is short of a full endorsement; Wittmann said judges, lawyers and advocates working to improve the family courts must first identify the problems before they can know it’s a solution.

“A unified family court is on the table because everything is on the table,” he said.

Improving access to justice for family litigants also means giving them more options to resolve their differences before they enter lengthy and expensive court proceedings, said Matchett.

“One issue is the increase of self-represented people who are coming before our court who don’t have the means to have counsel and need access to more simplified and user-friendly services,” he said.

“The research is pretty clear — prolonged family turmoil has very adverse effects, especially on children.”

The “November forum” the refers to was the Joint Action Forum organized by Alberta Justice involving primarily government, the bench and the bar to discuss ways of improving access to justice.

I have posted a short piece on unified family courts from a British Columbia perspective on my blog.

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