Law prof leads study on COVID-19’s effects on Ontario family justice

Western University’s research project aims to track pandemic’s impacts over time

Law prof leads study on COVID-19’s effects on Ontario family justice

Western University has announced that it is spearheading a new law research project that will examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted Ontario’s family justice system and has dramatically reduced access to family justice and court services.

The new study will look into the effects of the public health crisis on the response of courts, the practice of family justice professionals, the lives of litigants and other individuals involved with the family justice system, and the lives of those likely experiencing disproportionate impacts such as self-represented litigants, individuals who have experienced violence from intimate partners, the children of separating parents and families who have dealings with child welfare agencies.

The project aims to track the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis over time, including the expectations of transitioning to a “new normal.” In March 2020 family courts suspended their operations, courthouses closed, and restrictions that brought proceedings to a near standstill came into effect. In the spring, expanded uses of technology were introduced, while in the summer courts gradually reopened.

The study seeks to provide recommendations regarding how to modify or adapt innovations such as virtual hearings and electronic filings of materials for continued use.

“It’s a unique opportunity to gather feedback and identify any innovations to improve access to justice,” said Claire Houston, professor at Western Law and principal investigator for the research project, in the bulletin announcing it.

Changes made to the justice system due to pandemic restrictions may be found to have led to inequities, considering that not all litigants can access the internet or possess the skills needed to submit the required documents, Houston said in the bulletin. She noted that even before the outbreak, Ontario’s family justice system was already experiencing issues of inaccessibility and delay.

Houston, whose research focuses on the involvement of children in the justice system, high-conflict separation matters and intimate partner violence, will collaborate with co-investigators Rachel Birnbaum, professor at King’s University College at Western, and Nicholas Bala, professor at Queen’s University.

The study is supported by funding from the Ontario chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and from the Law Foundation of Ontario.

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