Family court reforms needed, justice minister says

The New Brunswick government must reform the family court system to ease the backlogs, according to the province's justice minister.

Justice Minister Marie-Claude Blais is warning that more changes could be coming to the family court system and legal aid system to ease the backlogs.

The New Brunswick government recently halted funding to a free mediation program to keep families out of the courtroom.

Despite the cut to mediation, Blais said domestic legal aid in New Brunswick is not adequate and the provincial government needs to do a better job of delivering legal services for families going through a separation or divorce.

She said the courts are clogged and said the justice department is looking at other ways to fix the system.

"We need to look at how much cost, or administrative costs, are not being used on the front line," Blais said.

The justice minister said, in particular, the family justice system is in need of an overhaul.

"Twenty, 30 years ago we didn't have the same number of divorces or separations as we have now," Blais said.

"But our court system has not changed a lot, and I think we need to make things less complicated, less emotional."

Report highlighted problems

The former Liberal government also acknowledged the problems with the family court system and commissioned the Access to Family Justice Task Force report.

The document was released in June 2009. The critical report said the family justice system had deteriorated over the previous 15 years.

The report attributed the worsening state of the system to a variety of factors, including an almost 50 per cent jump in people without lawyers, an escalation in the number and complexity of hearings in child protection cases and "perceived procedural requirements."

The task force report also said families were facing unacceptable delays in seeing their cases resolved because the system was overwhelmed by paperwork and by procedure.

Out of that report, the former Liberal government started the free mediation program and it was supposed to run for three years.

But Family Service Moncton, the organization that received the contract, has already spent the $700,000 set aside and the provincial government decided not to allocate any more money.

Blais said this week the decision to halt the program early was based on results.

Sheila Cameron, a Moncton lawyer and one of the author’s of the task force report, said the system is chronically underfunded.

Cameron said she hopes the provincial government will soon have free mediation back in place.

"The family court administrative side is overly complicated. I don't think it needs to be as complex as it is. And it creates great problems for people who are trying to navigate it," she said.