United Family Courts

Why not British Columbia?

United Family Courts

The idea that Unified Family Courts (“UFC’s”) are the solution to the inefficiencies, high legal costs, and barriers to justice arising from the overlapping jurisdiction between Provincial Courts and the Supreme Courts goes back to at least 1974. At that time, the Law Reform Commission of Canada had recommended a nationally implemented UFC model to address the shortcomings. The governing notion was that family legal issues were best dealt with as an integrated response, which included alternative dispute resolution and co-ordination with auxiliary social services.

The 1970s saw fundamental changes in substantive family law. UFC’s were the procedural counterpart meant to ensure that the reforms would not be rendered useless because of inefficiencies of time and cost. However, a national strategy never materialized. Instead, provincial pilot projects to implement UFC’s met with uneven results.

Today, the provinces that maintain UFC’s constituted them three or four decades ago. They include Manitoba (1984), New Brunswick (1979), Saskatchewan (1978), Newfoundland (1990), Nova Scotia (1989), and Prince Edward Island (1981). By 2009, these provinces had reached the number of sites that they maintain today, with no expansion since that time.

The experiences of Ontario and British Columbia are different and opposite. Ontario constituted its UFC in 1990. By 2009, there were 17 locations providing a simpler system for family litigants. Ontario continued to expand and today maintains 25 UFC locations with a commitment to complete the expansion by 2025. At the Opening of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2019, Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco remarked that the expansion of UFC’s is a significant reform, which genuinely enhances access to justice.

By contrast, British Columbia’s pilot project in 1974 to address the fragmentation of jurisdiction failed. It was hoped that the project would address the shortage of counselling and conciliation services for families, as well as a lack of legal representation for children whose rights were directly affected by adversarial proceedings.

The pilot project drew on the recommendations of a 1972 Royal Commission on Family and Children’s Law chaired by Mr. Justice Berger of the Supreme Court, and included a full-time judge of the family division of the Provincial Court, two social workers with experience in children’s mental health, and a pediatrician familiar with child abuse. The pilot project established a single registry for all court documents. It empowered family counsellors and family advocates to assist the court in resolving family legal problems.

In 1979, the Royal Commission’s work was evaluated by the Ministry of the Attorney General. Its findings were largely positive but by then the political climate had changed. A change in government in 1975 in the context of nationwide inflation and unemployment led to provincial and national fiscal restraint, which sealed the fate of the pilot project. It was abandoned.

The problems with family justice identified long ago persist and are worse than ever. A single court for family law matters continues to be the recommended solution in compelling reports issued in 2005 (“A New Justice System for Children and Families,” Family Justice Reform Working Group of the Justice Review Task Force), and in 2012 (“Meaningful Change for Family Justice: Beyond Wise Words,” the final report of the National Action Committee’s Family Justice Working Group). The CBABC’s Agenda for Justice 2021 calls for the implementation of a United Family Court in BC.

The new Divorce Act has modernized family law and complements the BC Family Law Act with common approaches to co-parenting and alternative dispute resolution. As noted earlier, the provinces in Canada that have successfully implemented UFC’s did so close in time to substantive family law reforms of the 1970s. Why not British Columbia, and why not now?