Family Justice Services Western
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Purpose of the Project
This document reports on the evaluation of Family Justice Services Western (FJSW). FJSW is a pilot project funded by the Department of Justice Canada, Child-Centred Family Justice Fund-Incentives for Special Projects and sponsored by the Department of Justice, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Managed by a community-based steering committee, FJSW became operational in early 2001, with a pilot period to March 2003. The program serves persons living in the Western Region of the province, with offices in Corner Brook and Stephenville. The evaluation's Statement of Work describes its purpose as,
"… To monitor and evaluate, and produce a high-quality research report on, the Family Justice Services Western project in Newfoundland and Labrador with a particular emphasis on and interest in the new administrative child support recalculation service."
The Government of Canada shares responsibility for policy development in a number of family law areas, including child support, and is interested in new approaches to addressing family law issues generally, with a particular interest in the administrative recalculation of child support. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is interested in determining the effectiveness of family law services, such as FJSW, as it develops alternatives to a generally adversarial, court-based approach.
The evaluation process consisted of four elements:
- Design phase—this involved a site visit, a review of materials, refinement of research questions and information sources, development of research tools (survey questionnaires, interview protocols) and design of the report.
- Administrative / document review—this included the review of relevant provincial and national program materials and general literature on family law.
- Key informant interviews—Thirty persons were interviewed, several more than once, including judges, lawyers, program staff, members of the steering committee, government officials and community advocates/ service providers.
- Participant surveys—this included a general participant survey of 86 users of FJSW and a second survey was of 72 clients of the recalculation service.
The strength of the findings of the two participant surveys was limited to some degree by low numbers and some skewing of the participant sample (by gender and custodial situation), though not more so than for other pilot projects of this nature.
- FJSW services (mediation, counselling and information sessions) are well received by judges, lawyers, clients and the community. The general approach followed by the project was highly regarded by all informants as being a cost-effective, responsive and more humane way of resolving issues related to separation and divorce. About 70 % of all persons referred to the project are settling their issues of custody, access and support through mediation conducted by a lawyer. Information and counselling are seen to contribute to more informed and sensitive approaches by parties to resolving legal issues, even if the dispute is not resolved by the project staff and proceeds to court.
- Administrative recalculation of child support is supported as an innovative, efficient and responsive option to addressing changes in payor circumstances in child support matters. Judges rated recalculation positively in terms of outcomes and its significant potential to save court time. Participants in the survey had high satisfaction levels, with most seeing recalculation as fair, an improvement over previous adversarial approaches, and not negatively influencing their relationship with the other parent.
- The management approach and the staffing team contribute significantly to the success of FJSW. A steering committee, which includes a Supreme Court judge, a Provincial Court judge, government officials and community group representatives, has guided program development and ensured program utilization. Although situated in a community agency, the model could be best described as court-annexed in nature. FJSW staff has considerable experience and expertise and has successfully adopted a team approach. Lawyer-mediators work in tandem with counsellors, social workers and administrative personnel to provide a wide range of integrated services.
- There are indications that waiting time to get to court as well as time spent in court is being saved, because of the success of the project in resolving matters in about 70% of all cases. In addition to savings in court time, which are estimated by the judges involved as being 30 to 40% or more, lawyers report that their clients are better educated because of their exposure to FJSW. Legal Aid lawyers note a reduction in their workload in family law matters.
- The majority of clients using FJSW are unrepresented by lawyers. At least 60 % of project clients are unrepresented by lawyers. These clients generally require significant administrative and court time because they are not aware of their rights and obligations. Often they have not completed the necessary forms, causing delays.
Family Justice Services Western (FJSW) has been effective in the delivery of family law services in the western region of Newfoundland and Labrador, and in many ways provides a model for implementation of these services in other regions of the province, as well as in other provinces. It has substantially achieved its goals and objectives, demonstrating the value of alternatives to court in resolving family law matters and building substantial community support and credibility.
Administrative recalculation of child support has had a promising introduction in the region, with positive feedback from clients, lawyers, judges and community groups. Variations on the existing approach are planned in other provinces (e.g. P.E.I.). These will help assess key components, such as refining assessment processes and determining the appropriate role of the court.
From a policy perspective, FJSW highlights important considerations. These include:
- Administration—a number of options for delivery of services such as FJSW exist, including court-attached, government-operated and community-operated models. The researchers are sceptical about the feasibility of the community-operated option, given the complexity of services provided and the reliance upon courts for referrals.
- Coercive approaches—FJSW, and latterly the rules of court in the province, support an approach wherein clients are directed to non-legal services before they can access court in family law matters. However, there are no procedures in place to coordinate FJSW-type services with other key components, such as Legal Aid. Therefore, persons with fewer resources, who have trouble accessing Legal Aid in a timely manner, may be involved in family law services with no legal representation. How this policy issue is ultimately addressed will have considerable impact on how people in the province access family law services. It should also be considered from a national perspective in terms of access to justice concerns.
- Comprehensive Service Approach / Mediator Qualifications—this project used a flexible range of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) approaches, including aspects of mediation, conciliation and negotiation. The mediator role in this project, distinct from national standards and trends, is restricted to lawyers. Further research may need to be conducted to weigh the respective benefits of a multi-disciplinary approach wherein lawyers are the mediators, versus a non-legal focus with access to independent legal advice as required. A key variable at this point in the development of ADR in family law in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is that other legal professionals prefer to deal with a lawyer in the mediator role.
- There is an ongoing need to ensure that safety in provision of family law services such as FJSW is enhanced through training and sensitivity to issues of power imbalances (as has occurred latterly in FJSW) and the active involvement of representatives of women's advocacy groups.
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