by Thomas Cromwell
Alberta has been engaged for several years in an ambitious family law reform effort. I spoke to Diana Lowe, co-lead of the Reforming the Family Justice System (RFJS) initiative, about what they have been doing and what’s ahead. Here is the second part of my interview with her.
TC: What main innovations have been introduced and how are they working?
DL: The most significant change that has taken place, is a shift in the mental model or culture in the family justice system, away from improving access to lawyers, law and adversarial processes, and instead to a focus on family well-being through services that support families as they experience the pressures of restructuring. We are encouraging awareness of this shift by all participants in the family justice system, including families, and encouraging alignment with the Theory of Change in policy and programs.
We are beginning to see shifts in systems, policy and practices including the Court of Queen’s Bench that has adopted the Theory of Change in its Strategic Plan and is beginning to take action to put this into effect. Resolution Services in the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General is developing a pilot to refocus the work of frontline staff as “justice system navigators.” These staff will be trained in brain science, and will develop maps of community services so they can assist families to obtain the supports they need for their social, relationship, parenting and financial needs.
This pilot is a collaboration with the County of Strathcona Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) and if successful, will be expanded to include FCSS organizations throughout the province.
Alberta has submitted a joint proposal (by the Alberta Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, the Court of Queen’s Bench and the provincial court) to the federal minister of Justice, for the creation of an Alberta Unified Family Court. The proposal embedded the RFJS Theory of Change, supporting the use of services to assist Alberta families to access supports they need to help develop resilience, and to resolve disputes away from the adversarial processes of courts as much as possible.
TC: How is the experience of a family going through separation and divorce different from what it might have been five years ago?
DL: While the RFJS is still underway, there are many things that parents can do already to help them and their children thrive as they restructure. As co-convenor Justice Andrea Moen noted at our recent Collaborator Workshop, collaborative family professionals were out front in understanding that co-operation and collaboration between parents is essential for the health of the family and of the children. They led the way by creating teams of professionals to assist families.
The RFJS is aligned with the collaborative approach both to help families avoid adversarial court processes and to work out the restructuring of their family. Their approach is a model which ensures that families receive the kinds of relationship, parenting and financial supports that they need, and families can be guided by the model that collaborative professionals have created for supporting healthy families.
There are many different supports that are available to assist families, including collaborative family practitioners, co-parenting experts, wellness coaches, grief counsellors, financial advisers, step-parent supports, and of course mediators and lawyers. Examples of these supports are published regularly in Divorce Magazine. Families can use technology tools that encourage parents to work together to achieve better outcomes, including coParenter and Undo.
Supports for families are also available in most communities in the province through Family and Community Support Services partnerships between the provincial government and municipal governments; at Parent Link Centres; and through Triple-P Parenting Resources.
The RFJS is supporting the Ministry pilot in the County of Strathcona that will see families seek these supports, as part of our goal for better outcomes. As families are encouraged to seek out these supports early on in their decision to restructure, they are better able to deal with the emotional, parenting, relationship and financial challenges that commonly occur upon separation and divorce, and to avoid tangling these issues into legal processes.
TC: What’s next?
DL: Our Outcomes Framework identifies our key priorities for the coming year as:
- Working with the legal profession to encourage brain science education by family lawyers, and identifying implications for shifts in ethical responsibilities and practices of family lawyers.
- Working with the courts to ensure they are familiar with the Theory of Change, and are encouraged to align court processes with it.
- Continued work with the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General on the pilot with FCSS, and other family justice initiatives.
- Helping to enhance the public understanding that “parents fighting about their children causes harm,” and to provide information about supports to improve resilience and well-being of family members.
- Working with frontline service providers and supports for families, to empower them to provide the social, relationship, parenting and financial supports that families need when they’re restructuring.
- Working with other ministries (Health, Education, Community and Social Services, Children’s Services) to share the Theory of Change and seek alignment with it, and the integration of services for families, in order to help families thrive.
This is the second of a two-part series. Read part one here.
This article originally appeared on The Lawyer’s Daily on July 30, 2018. It is the tenth article in The Honourable Thomas Cromwell’s exclusive Lawyer’s Daily column dedicated to access to civil and family justice.
The Honourable Thomas Cromwell served 19 years as an appellate judge and chairs the Chief Justice’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. He retired from the Supreme Court of Canada in September of 2016 and is now senior counsel to the national litigation practice at Borden Ladner Gervais.