Alberta Justice and Solicitor General Releases Report of the Joint Action Forum

By: Nicole Aylwin

In November of 2013, Alberta Justice and Solicitor General convened leaders in the civil and family justice system at a “Joint Action Forum” to begin a process to improve access to justice in Alberta’s civil and family justice system.

A summary report, entitled “What Was Heard”, captures the discussions that took place at Joint Action Forum and is now available online.

This effective report lays out several “visions” for the Alberta civil and family justice system. These visions paint a picture of a justice system that:

  • Provides Albertans with the skills and information needed to avoid, manage and resolve legal conflicts;
  • Empowers Albertans to address underlying problems that often motivate legal disputes;
  • Offers user-friendly dispute resolution options that meet the needs of the public;
  • Ensures legal services are affordable and available;
  • Makes accessible strong supportive informal pathways to justice; and
  • Develops a stronger capacity for innovation.

Beyond these visions the report details the many suggestions and recommendations made by participants and outlines “next steps” for develpoing an action plan for Alberta.

To read the full report click here.

The report can also be accessed via the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General website by clicking here.

The Impact of Family Law Workshops on SRLs

By: Deborah Doherty

I would like to share the Findings of an Evaluation Study that was undertaken to assess the impact of family law workshops for individuals handling their own family law matters.  This initiative was developed by Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick with Access to Justice funding from the Law Foundation of Ontario.  The evaluation shows that individuals who participated in the workshop felt better prepared to complete court forms, more knowledgeable about navigating the family justice system and much less stressed.  In fact, as a result of what they learned in the workshop, 80% of participants said they were more likely to try to resolve their matter outside of the courtroom.  Court staff interviewed saw a marked improvement in the motions/petitions submitted by individuals reprepsenting themselves, although they could not necessary attribute it to the workshops. While education/information is certainly not a panacea, it can make a significant different for individuals who are dealing with”lower level” conflict situations but who do not qualify for legal aid (typically because their particular issue is an out of scope service) and they cannot afford a lawyer.  Suffice to say, we are condfident that these workshops offer an important referral source for court staff and others, and thus, a valuable adjunct service to other legal services such as legal aid. Many of the recent reports on SRLs and access to family justice have recognized the important role of providing education and information at multiple entry points.  I am attaching the Executive Summariy of the evaluation report below.

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.