Ontario’s family law bar may finally get its wish of a province-wide unified family court system after inter-governmental discussions got underway with a view to expanding the service.
The unified court started as a pilot project in Hamilton, Ont. 35 years ago, and currently operates at 17 sites across Ontario, about one-third of court locations in the province.
The federal government is responsible for judicial appointments to the unified court, and speaking this morning at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Sixth Annual Family Law Summit, Ontario’s Attorney General John Gerretsen told the audience of that expanding the UFC is key to his plans for improving the justice system.
“I have started discussion with the federal minister of justice Rob Nicholson, as well as other members of the federal cabinet, and there seems to be a willingness to expand the unified family court process across this province on an incremental basis,” said Gerretsen.
Gerretsen said his own time as a sole practitioner in Kingston, Ont., where he did some family law work before he went into politics, gave him an insight into people’s troubles with the current division of powers in most locations.
The Ontario Court of Justice deals with custody, access, child and spousal support, adoption, and child protection applications, but not divorce or division of property matters. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice can decide disputes involving divorce, division of property, child and spousal support, and custody and access, but not child protection or adoption matters.
“If there was one thing people could never understand, it was why they had to go to two different courts to get their family situations dealt with,” Gerretsen said. “I must admit that when I came into the ministry, since we’ve had a unified family court in the Kingston area and most of eastern Ontario since the late 1990s, I had assumed a unified court was pretty well standard across the province.”
The UFC has been a hot topic at previous years’ summits. In 2011, then- attorney general Chris Bentley, LSUC Treasurer Laurie Pawlitza, and Chief Justice Warren Winkler all teamed up to demand its immediate expansion.
“We’ve studied the UFCs enough,” Winkler said in 2011. “We need to spread that right across the province.”
With a 35-year wait already behind them, Gerretsen warned attendees at the summit that their well-exercised patience could be tried further in the future.
“We are currently experiencing a challenging fiscal climate and given that, province-wide expansion may take longer, and may be done in incremental fashion,” he said. “There is no doubt there will be many challenges as we unify more court sites, but the important thing to remember is the unified family court system will allow us to focus on the goal of providing what’s best for the people who are using it.”