The Saint John Family Law Pilot Project
Hackett, M. Deborah, University of New Brunswick Law Journal
Timely and client-focused access to justice is crucial in all areas of law. It is especially so in the emotional family law setting. Delays in obtaining relief in family law matters can make a bad situation worse for all parties. The children of a relationship end up suffering the most when caught in the middle of escalating custody, access and support disputes between their parents.
As Case Management Master for the three-year Saint John Family Law Pilot Project, I was pleased to receive an invitation to make a submission to the UNB Law Journal's special access to justice edition. This article will provide background on the establishment of the pilot project, a summary of its objectives, goals and main elements, and a brief review of experience to date.
In February of 2008, the then Minister of Justice and Consumer Affairs announced the appointment of a seven-member Access to Family Justice Task Force. The Task Force members were the Honourable Mr. Justice Raymond Guerette, Chair, and six family law lawyers from around the province: David Lutz, Q.C., Brenda Noble, Q.C, Michelle Boudreau-Dumas, Sheila Cameron, Jennifer Donovan, and Mary-Eileen Flanagan. (2) The Task Force was directed:
to undertake a review of the family court system, including the legislation, regulations and Rules of Court applicable thereto, and make recommendations to the Government of New Brunswick that will lead to:
* More timely access to justice in resolving family law disputes;
* Expanded use of alternatives to family courts to resolve family law issues; and
* Increased access to legal information and legal assistance in family law matters, especially for the poor, single parents and First Nations people. (3)
The Task Force submitted its Report dated January 23, 2009, to the Government of New Brunswick. In summary the Report identified the following province-wide problems:
* Delays to get interim relief in private family law cases;
* Matters routinely taking the trial route; and
* The growing number of people representing themselves in family law proceedings. (4)
Among other things, the Report recommended a "new paradigm" based on the Ottawa case management model. As stated at page 10 of the Report:
In simple terms, we are recommending a system that utilizes dispute resolution approaches as early as possible in the majority of cases, reserving the adversarial model for cases that need to be fast-tracked to judicial hearing, i.e. cases involving parent or child safety and welfare concerns, urgency (such as child abduction) and/or non-routine questions of law, evidence or legal process. (5)
In June of 2009 the Government of New Brunswick announced that a pilot project in the Court of Queen's Bench, Family Division would be established to implement recommendations of the Task Force, and in the following month the Judicial District of Saint John was announced as the site for the pilot. (6) Further details of the pilot were announced in February of 2010. (7) Between February and July 2010, required legislative changes and a new Rule of Court and Forms were drafted, renovations were made to the court facility, and supporting staff were hired.
In July 2010, the project was launched with the opening of a new Family Law Information Centre in the Court of Queen's Bench facility, located at 110 Charlotte Street in Saint John. The Case Management Master and Triage Coordinator appointments were made, (8) a meeting was held with the local family law bar, and the new operational model of case management fully commenced in late November 2010.
Goals and Objectives of the Pilot
The stated objectives of the pilot, similar to the mandate given to the Task Force, are:
to provide more timely resolution of family [law matters], to reserve court time for the most complex cases, and to provide self represented litigants with the necessary information to navigate the process. …