Alberta family lawyers puzzled by suspension of unified family court project

A new unified family court, an initiative to streamline the duplication and complexity of family law cases, has been put on hold indefinitely by the Alberta government. 

Backlog in family law cases a crisis no one is talking about, lawyer says

Lawyers say the backlog of family law cases could be reduced through a unified family court. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

The launch of a new unified family court, an initiative to streamline the duplication and complexity of family law cases, has been put on hold indefinitely by the Alberta government. 

Family lawyers were told about the suspension at Court of Queen's Bench town halls in Edmonton and Calgary on Tuesday. The project — which would set up a centralized access point for families — was supposed to start in September. 

Wayne Barkauskas, a family lawyer from Calgary who is a past national family law chair for the Canadian Bar Association, said people were shocked by the news, particularly since they were expecting to hear about a launch date. Instead, they were told how Alberta Justice alerted the Court of Queen's Bench about the suspension on Feb. 14.

The reason wasn't immediately clear, but Barkauskas has heard that the province was concerned about a small increase in the costs of support staff. 

"It doesn't make any sense that the province would delay this as a result of cost implications," Barkauskas said in an interview with CBC News on Thursday. "Actually, it seems counterintuitive."

A unified family court would eliminate duplication of resources and judges would be paid by the federal government, which has already committed funding, he said. Clients would also save money on legal costs. 

Barkauskas said the unified family court was supported by both judges and Alberta family lawyers. 

He said the current system is in crisis with some cases taking three years to get to court. He said a family could appear before as many as four judges. 

"So you're trying to explain to four different judges, none of whom talk to each other, about what's going on with the file," Barkauskas said. "Each of these judges play a different part or piece in this puzzle."

Suspension a mystery

Jonah Mozeson, press secretary for Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, confirmed there were no immediate plans to set up the Alberta Family Court. 

In an email, he said the federal government had committed to appointing 17 justices, but would not commit to funding support positions. 

"The idea of a Unified Family Court would have been intended to save taxpayer money and cut red tape. However, these and other ongoing expenditures would have cost Alberta taxpayers millions of dollars a year," Mosezon said. 

"This would be in addition to the tens of millions of dollars in capital and infrastructure changes in Edmonton and Calgary that would have been required during a time of fiscal restraint."

In Canada, federally-appointed judges that sit on provincial superior courts — like Court of Queen's Bench in Alberta — hear matters relating to the Divorce Act. 

Provincial court judges deal with issues like the separation of common-law couples and child support and custody. 

Under a unified family court, a judge who specializes in family law would hear everything related to a case. The matter could also go to mediation prior to ending up in the courtroom. 

The idea of a single court for family matters has been around since the 1970s. Alberta is one of the last Canadian provinces to put the system in place. 

Calgary-Mountain View MLA Kathleen Ganley, the NDP opposition critic for justice, said most of the work for the unified family court was complete when she was justice minister in the previous government. 

Like Barkauskas, Ganley says she is confused by the government's decision. 

"There shouldn't be additional cost to the province," Ganley said in an interview. 

"In fact, the province should be able to hire more folks because they get back the money from the judges' salaries."

Families in distress

Patricia Hebert, a family lawyer and mediator in Edmonton, said the suspension was a disappointment. She calls the move a disservice to families trying to navigate a complicated system while they are in personal distress. Many represent themselves at court, she said. 

"The last thing they need is more confusion trying to determine which level of court is best for them to go to," Hebert said. 

Streamlining the system means people won't have to go to court as often, she added. 

"That reduces costs to the court and the court system but that also reduces cost, stress to the family members involved. And that's really who we all are here to serve."

Barkauskas is unhappy the suspension appears to have occurred without any consultation. 

He says the government is disregarding the extent of the crisis in family law. 

"All of the available resources are being put toward criminal law matters which are also critically important," he said. 

"But as a result of that, everything in family law is getting pushed back further and further and further and nobody's talking about that. And it's causing some real problems."