Proposed changes to family law in Ontario are a good first step, but some experts question how far they can go without new funding.
Attorney General Chris Bentley announced the long-promised changes Thursday, saying they should make divorce proceedings faster, less expensive and less combative.
The new measures don't involve any new funds, but rather a redistribution of current resources.
"These are very emotionally wrenching situations," Bentley said in an interview.
"You don't want to pile on top of the emotion a long, protracted, bitter fight that studies all say is very bad for the kids, very bad for the parties and uses up whatever money you're going to have to live on in the future."
Philip Epstein, a veteran family lawyer in Toronto, says the changes show the government understands the system isn't working.
He's encouraged by a push toward more mediation and a streamlining of the court process, saying it could keep parents away from adversarial court battles that often harm children.
But Epstein says what's really needed is a unified system across the province, as well as specialized judges well-equipped to handle tough cases.
Without any additional funding, he says, that's unlikely to happen.
Bentley said the changes will mean a "much faster and clearer way" to resolve disputes.
"It will mean you're going to get a lot more support early on."
Free up court time
Under the changes, people will have more access to legal advice from the outset, as well as to options like mediation, arbitration or collaborative law, which are much less combative than the court process.
That will also free up court time for cases that must be argued through the system, although those will now have less paperwork and fewer steps so that people can get to a judge, and a decision, sooner.
"It takes the time and expense that we spend on cases that shouldn't have that time and expense, and moves those resources to the cases that need more attention, helping them to be resolved faster and better as well," said Bentley.
As part of the redistribution, some of the $150 million committed to legal aid over the next four years, for instance, will go toward providing more access to legal advice for people getting divorced.
The government has long promised to reform the province's justice system, and has already worked to reduce the number of unproductive court appearances in criminal cases.
Last year, Bentley pledged to review the handling of child custody cases following the death of Katelynn Sampson, a Toronto seven-year-old who was allowed to stay in the care of a woman who had a criminal record for drugs, prostitution and violence.
A report from the Ontario Bar Association that same year found the province's legal system had reached a "breaking point."
Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler urged for a review of family law, saying there were only 17 dedicated family courts scattered in various pockets of Ontario.
Other top judges have complained they are faced with handling a high volume of child protection, custody and support cases.
They've also said there's an increasing number of people who don't have a lawyer, meaning judges are forced to spend valuable court time giving basic advice and help.
Georgina Carson, who chairs the family law division of the bar association, says one of the best ways to keep people out of court is to inform them about their options from the start.
She adds the changes announced Thursday will keep the parties from jumping directly into the court system.
The family law changes will come into effect on March 1.