In an unusual move, a Court of Queen's Bench judge has spoken out against the New Brunswick government, saying he feels betrayed.
Justice Raymond Guerette, of Campbellton, made the comments during a meeting of the provincial branch of the Canadian Bar Association in Moncton Friday.
"I thought long and hard before agreeing to make this speech, but some things need to be said," he told the estimated 50 lawyers gathered, including former justice ministers T.J. Burke and Mike Murphy.
'Judges are supposed to keep quiet on public issues, but there is one exception to that rule - and that's when it comes to the proper administration of justice.' —Justice Raymond Guerette
Guerette chaired a task force in 2008-09, looking at ways to make it easier and cheaper for people to get a divorce. But the government has instead made it more difficult and more expensive, he said.
"Judges are supposed to keep quiet on public issues, but there is one exception to that rule - and that's when it comes to the proper administration of justice."
Guerette said the family courts are poorly administered and nobody is doing anything to change that.
"Everybody in the family law community knows there's something wrong with the family court judicial system and we've known it for a very long time."
Guerette even wondered who is in charge at the department of justice - although Attorney General Kelly Lamrock wasn't there to hear it because he had to leave early to coach a basketball game.
The judge pointed to the report he prepared with six high profile lawyers last June on how to improve family law. The Access to Family Justice Task Force made 50 recommendations, including providing consensual dispute resolution options.
But to date, none of the recommendations have been implemented. Shortly after the task force released its report, the province cut the jobs of 14 court mediators.
"And legal aid was reduced. Honestly, we felt betrayed," said Guerette.
"Instead of going forward, we were going backwards," he said, comparing it the state of the system in 1983.
Guerette said he's pleased the province has moved on a six-month-old promise to set up a pilot project in Saint John to make it easier for people to get a divorce, with more of a focus on mediation. That should be in place by April, he said.
But Guerette wants to hear by next year how that program will be expanded to the rest of New Brunswick.
The current system is too adversarial and too hard on children, said Sheila Cameron, a Moncton lawyer, who was also part of the task force appointed to look at the issues and challenges faced by the family division of the Court of Queen's Bench.
"The system is basically you line up your warriors on your side of the courtroom and you try to inflict damage to the other side of the courtroom. So the system is not leading by example," she said.
The task force's report pointed to a pilot project in Ottawa as an example of how family law should work.
'The system is basically you line up your warriors on your side of the courtroom and you try to inflict damage to the other side of the courtroom.' —Sheila Cameron, lawyer
Parents there are offered free mediation services first and have to take a course that explains the impact their conflict will have on their children in the short and long term.
"We know that this system will work," said Cameron. "We see it every day in our practices that when people are put in the same room and asked to collaborate, to come up with options, they will resolve their problems in everybody's best interest."
Parents have a right to separate respectfully and with dignity, with the least harm done financially and to the children, she said. But under the current system, that's not the case.
"We need them to act with maturity and common sense to settle their issues in the best interest of their children. However the current system doesn't assist them in doing that," Cameron said.
Cameron said when the task force was appointed in February 2008, the members had discussed whether their report would "sit on a shelf and gather dust."
"Collectively, we made a commitment that we would not let that happen," she said.
The task force's manadate was to make recommendations that would lead to:
- More timely access to justice in resolving family law disputes.
- Expanded use of alternatives to the family court to resolve family law issues.
- Increased access to legal information and legal assistance in family law matters.
The report found families were facing unacceptable delays in seeing their cases resolved, with workers bogged down by paperwork and the interests of children secondary to procedural requirements.
It outlined recommendations covering three areas: operations; legislation and rules of court in relation to family division matters; and education and information.
At the time, then-justice minister T.J. Burke said overhauling the system would be his most important task, but that it wouldn't be quick or easy.