Victoria, B.C. is a beautiful and inviting city and a great location for the 2010 Family Law Summit. Held at the impressive Empress Hotel, conference hosts and staff were affable and accommodating. Some of the local bar even invited attendees into their homes for dinner and a social evening with their families.
The theme of the summit was change.
Mediation, collaboration, and negotiation will be the future of family law. The bar will increasingly abandon the current court system as forms, rules, and process become increasingly more complicated.
The family law bar will become increasing sophisticated regarding resolution and we may see a bifurcation of the family law bar between litigators and collaborative practice.
The role of the judiciary, too, will evolve from simple decision-makers to one of triage managers and arbitrators. Judges will need to become more interventionist to effectively manage and resolve contested family matters.
We have already started to see the seeds of this change in Ontario with the new Family Law Rules and implementation of case management. However, judges need to take a much more active and progressive role in their management of family law cases.
Technology, too, will continue to drive many changes for family law lawyers. David Bilinsky, practice management adviser for the Law Society of British Columbia, notes lawyers need to be concerned about the metadata contained in their digital documents and recommends these documents be scrubbed or cleaned before they leave the firm.
There is an increasing move to paperless offices for many family law lawyers. Lawyers need to be cognizant of data storage requirements, destruction, and security.
As well, e-mail communications promote efficiency but we must ensure that proper safeguards are put in place. Speakers noted that lawyers should consider encryption software for all e-mail communications.
Scanning documents and e-mail communication with clients are now essential tools in every family law lawyer’s practice. This provides for nearly instant communication with the client and saves the client time and expense. Clients now have the choice of providing comments and possible changes to documents electronically rather than attending the lawyer’s office. This is especially useful for out-of-town clients.
This is certainly the future of progressive client-focused family law firms.
Also on the technology front, we heard that family law lawyers need to be mindful of the increasing use of social media and how this affects their practice and their clients.
For instance, Facebook is being increasingly used in contested family matters. Clients’ postings are often relevant to their parenting (in)ability, work status, employment, and other conduct which may be relevant to a contested family proceeding.
Keep in mind Facebook entries may be discoverable, admissible, and relevant. They may also provide fodder for cross-examination.
The future will also include increasing web-based information and how-to videos for the public concerning family law matters and litigation.
Sitting Ontario Court Justice Harvey Brownstone filmed six episodes of his Family Matters TV show during the summit week in Victoria at Island Industrial FX studios. Brownstone is also the author of the well-received book Tug of War: A Judge’s Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles, and The Bitter Realities of Family Court.
While not necessarily making their own television shows, many lawyers are now producing videos as part of their ongoing marketing strategy. The future of family practice will see the use and marketing of these videos increase through firm web sites, YouTube, and other avenues.
Also expect the growth of virtual online family law firms and services in the future. This innovation is already a reality in B.C. with the practice of Nicole Garton-Jones and her virtual law firm Heritage Law.
We also learned that future developments in family law may see property rights for common law spouses and the development by the Department of Justice of a recalculation service for child support awards. A recalculation service may assist in timely, yearly adjustments to child support and avoid the hardship and necessity of large retroactive adjustments.
Children will have an increasing voice in contested family matters in the future and parental alienation cases will need to be triaged immediately and dealt with expeditiously.
As far as family law and family law practice is concerned the times they are a-changin’.
Russell I. Alexander is a family law lawyer with offices in Lindsay and Brooklin, Ontario. Russell Alexander is a full-service family law firm that includes Collaborative Practice. For more information visit www.russellalexander.com.