A Moncton lawyer says access to family justice in New Brunswick is the worst in the country and is calling on the provincial government to take another look at a 2009 task force report.
Sheila Cameron says families are waiting up to seven months to see a judge for custody and support orders.
Long waits increase stress and costs for families already going through a difficult time, she said.
Cameron contends a reasonable wait time is four to six weeks.
"We have beautiful courthouses, but that's not access to justice. Access to justice is giving everybody timely and affordable access to the legal services they need, when they need it — and we're failing miserably at that right now."
In June 2009, Cameron was part of a task force that submitted 50 recommendations to the provincial government to improve access to family court.
As it stands, only three of the recommendations have been implemented, she said.
Although Cameron says she understands government budgets are tight, she maintains family justice deserves special attention.
"We need lots of services in education and health, but when it comes to access to family justice, I feel like they are intertwined; that the people that are caught up in family justice are seeing significant impacts on their education for their children and their own health and their children's health," she said.
Chairman felt 'betrayed'
In February 2010, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Raymond Guerette, who chaired the Access to Family Justice task force, took the unusual step of speaking out against the provincial government, saying he felt betrayed.
Guerette said instead of making it easier and cheaper for people to get a divorce, the government had made it more difficult and more expensive.
Shortly after the report was released, the government cut the jobs of 14 court mediators and reduced legal aid.
The task force found the family court system was in disarray and had been deteriorating for years, with workers bogged down with paperwork and the interests of children secondary to procedural requirements.
Some of the recommendations included replacing the "adversarial system" with one that lets families break up with dignity and respect; and adopting a triage system that would quickly assess new cases and route them toward appropriate services such as mediation.
Then-justice minister T.J. Burke had said overhauling the system would be his most important task, but said it wouldn't be quick or easy. He appointed a committee to look at how to implement the task force's recommendations and to launch a pilot program in Saint John.
The seven-member task force, which was appointed in February 2008, was mandated to make recommendations that would lead to:
- More timely access to justice in resolving family law disputes.
- Expanded used of alternatives to the family court to resolve family law issues.
- Increased access to legal information and legal assistance in family law matters.