Family law reform report pitches 3-year pilot project to resolve more disputes out of court

The Manitoba government has received a report that will serve as a blueprint for a large-scale family law overhaul officials say will make the system faster and cheaper, and ultimately reduce the number of cases resolved in courtrooms.

Will guide system overhaul unique in Canada, saving families money: Justice Minister

Winnipeg lawyer Allan Fineblit chaired the committee that completed the report. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

The Manitoba government has received a report that will serve as a blueprint for a large-scale family law overhaul officials say will make the system faster and cheaper, and ultimately reduce the number of cases resolved in courtrooms.

"We were so struck by how inaccessible the current model is for most people. People with jobs, working families, can't afford the cost of legal services they need now," said Winnipeg lawyer Allan Fineblit, the chair of the committee that wrote the report.

"Many of them are walking into court, dealing with some of the most important things in their lives — their children, their assets, the division of their pension — and they're doing it self-represented because they can't afford lawyers."

Fineblit and a committee of legal experts were selected to complete the report last fall, when Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson announced plans to reform the family law system.

The committee consulted with a number of stakeholders, reviewed research and heard from hundreds of Manitobans and others across Canada who have experiences with family law.

The report, released on Friday, recommends creating a three-year pilot project that would direct Winnipeg-based family law matters away from court and instead into an appropriate type of mediation.

Nearly all types of family law disputes can be dealt with in the right type of mediation, Fineblit added Friday. He said that approach could reduce costs and time in the system, and would help lay the foundation for an ongoing relationship.

"What we're excited about is the idea that whether you want to or not, whether you think it's a good idea or not, whether one side wants to or the other side doesn't, in most cases that's where you're going to end up, and you're going to end up there right from the get-go."

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said the report's recommendations haven't been done before in Canada. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

On Friday, Stefanson said the government will begin work to put the recommendations into legislation, which she expects will be put forward in the fall.

The cost to the government of establishing the system will be determined throughout the process, she said.

"For right now, it's very premature to say," she said.

"Where this is going to find savings is for Manitoba families at the end of the day."

'Never been done before in Canada'

Stefanson said Manitoba already has a network of mediators that could tapped into under the pilot project, but didn't rule out the possibility of hiring more.

She said the idea of a pilot project "makes sense" to government because it provides flexibility to adjust the system as problems arise.

"We know that this is a very innovative approach to family law reform. It's never been done before in Canada," she said.

"We recognize that there will be challenges and some changes that need to take place. We're not always going to get it right."

The report also includes a recommendation to create an administrative office to be led by a chief resolution officer, which would triage disputes related to child custody, access and child or spousal support.

Another suggestion would improve the quality and amount of information to help people navigate the system.

Stefanson said the system will improve access to justice for those Manitobans "who have fallen through the cracks," including middle-income families that don't qualify for Legal Aid but can't afford private lawyers.

"This report shows a path forward, an approach that puts families first and recognizes the current system does not meet their needs," she said. "For the government, the work begins now."