March 16, 2016 - 9:30 AM
VANCOUVER - British Columbia's top judge is heading a group that aims to reform the province's family and civil justice system to make it more accessible for an increasing number of people who represent themselves in court.
Justice Robert Bauman said the goal of Access to Justice B.C. is to first focus on tackling the complexities of family justice through the users' perspective.
The group includes 26 people from diverse backgrounds so justice reforms will be different from past initiatives to foster action, not create yet another report, Bauman said in an interview Tuesday.
"We want to do something different instead of study the problem," he said, adding the group will develop measures to gauge success and ensure objectives are being met.
Some of the initiatives would include small steps leading to big leaps, including simplifying the rules and using plain language on forms that can be filled out online, Bauman said.
He said users of the system will be recognized as partners by Access to Justice B.C., which was formed in response to a 2013 federal report that criticized civil and family justice in Canada as too slow, too complex and too expensive.
Jane Morley, a lawyer and spokeswoman for the group, said four judges, including Associate Chief Justice Austin Cullen of the B.C. Supreme Court, are involved, along with the deputy justice minister, lawyers and advocates for First Nations, the disabled and immigrants.
Jennifer Muller, an advocate for people navigating the family justice system, represented herself during her divorce process in 2008 and 2009 and is now part of Access to Justice B.C.'s executive committee.
Even if people hire a lawyer when they file for divorce, most end up wading through an overwhelming system on their own because they can't afford to pay thousands of dollars on a lengthy process, Muller said.
"It's definitely a daunting, difficult situation and certainly not a life experience that most people would aspire to. Unfortunately, a growing number of Canadians are facing this."
Muller said the group has identified three key areas requiring change, including making consensual dispute resolution mandatory; increasing the number of justice access centres so people can get free advice to fill out forms and get information about the court process; and making it easier for people to hire a lawyer for only parts of their case.
"Because of the great number of self-represented litigants it's causing a lot of difficulty and tension on our system," she said.
Former Vancouver family lawyer John-Paul Boyd said the system remains adversarial and inaccessible despite numerous attempts at reform going back to the 1970s but he's hoping Bauman's leadership will finally lead to changes.
Boyd, who is executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family in Calgary, said the emotional and financial cost of unresolved conflict for divorcing couples and their children is too high for the status quo to continue.
Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia are also reforming family justice, he said.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016