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Benefits abound for upgraded family law centres

A reaffirmed provincial government investment into Family Law Service Centres across Ontario opens up the opportunity for matters to settle quickly and efficiently, relieving overburdened courts and freeing up legal aid funding, says Toronto family lawyer Will Abbott.

The Ontario government recently confirmed it is allocating $30 million over three years to improve delivery of front-line client services through the family law centres and community and legal clinics across the province, Law Times reports.

The funding was first announced in May, and was recently reaffirmed amid talks of government cutbacks to legal services, the report says.

“This is poised to allow matters to settle quickly, thereby leading to less acrimony between separating parties, free up time for overburdened courts and allow additional legal aid funding for more matters that do not settle at the early stage,” says Abbott, partner with MacDonald & Partners LLP.

Legal Aid Ontario’s Family Law Service Centres provide legal advice, duty counsel, and mediation services to low-income families, Law Times reports.

Ideally, Abbott says, the centres would have additional staff lawyers to assist in giving advice; additional mediators to try and assist litigants in concluding matters quickly; flexible hours to operate one or two nights a week and offer weekend appointments; and computers available for users to complete electronic forms.

“With all of the above there is no reason why an electronic online schedule cannot be kept so that people aren’t waiting hours for assistance,” says Abbott. “A provision could be made that 24 hours’ notice is needed for a cancellation, failing which you are not allowed to use the centre's services.”

Abbott says better access to these centres is likely to reduce the number of welfare recipients; reduce the number of individuals having to obtain legal aid certificates as they will be able to resolve their issue with the assistance of the centre’s staff; and reduce the number of self-represented individuals in court thereby freeing up scarce judicial resources.

“Mandatory mediation for civil suits was recommended and the government introduced a pilot project in Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor. It has been a resounding success, but presumably because of budget restraints, it has not been expanded,” says Abbott. “The Family Law Service Centres will likely act in a similar manner as the mandatory civil mediation and should have equal, if not greater, success.”

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