A decision this week by the Manitoba Court of Appeal casts a harsh light on the family law system, at the same time the province is promising to overhaul it. 

On Tuesday, the appeal court released a decision in a divorce case it said highlighted "everything that is wrong with our family law court system." 

The appeal court upheld the decision of a motion judge awarding $10,000 in costs against the wife's former lawyer, finding that he had used court proceedings as a "form of leverage" to obtain concessions to which his client was not entitled — conduct the motion judge called "reprehensible."

The husband and wife had "substantial" assets and had settled all matters except for spousal support prior to divorcing.

"That proceeding should have been simple and straightforward," Chief Justice Richard Chartier wrote on behalf of the appeal court. "Instead, it dragged on pointlessly, causing needless court filings and delays as well as thousands of dollars of fees and costs."

The court system "is not intended to be the preserve of the wealthy who choose not to practically and efficiently resolve their disputes," Chartier said.

"In other cases, indeed most, parties should not be required to face the continuing trauma of significant expenses and protracted proceedings at an exceedingly vulnerable and emotionally charged period of their lives, namely marital and family breakdown. There has to be a better way."

Province plans family law reform

This week, the provincial government announced plans to reform the family law system and make it more accessible for participants. 

"The system can often be adversarial and irreparably damaging to families," Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said in a news release. "The experience can be especially harmful for young children. Our government is prepared to make changes to the current model, which will greatly improve fairness and well-being for Manitobans who interact with the family law system."

Allan Fineblit, former CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba, will chair a committee including family lawyers, representatives from the Court of Queen's Bench and community members to look at reforms.

The current system is unaffordable for many Manitobans and doesn't do enough to promote the health of families, Fineblit said in a news release. 

"Finding ways to reform the family law system is an opportunity to look at a fundamental shift toward a system that focuses on collaboration and the best interests of families," Fineblit said.

The committee will report back to Stefanson in early 2018 with a detailed plan for a new family law model that will be used to guide future legislation, the news release said.