Accessing family law services in both official languages

By Tony Poland, Associate Editor

People should be aware they have the legal right to access services in either English or French — Canada's two official languages — when dealing with the justice system, Toronto family lawyer Jennifer Daudlin tells

Daudlin, founder and principal of Daudlin Law, says litigants whose first language is not English can proceed with their matters in French, but they may experience delays given some of the challenges around resources.

“It’s important to understand that you can elect to have your matter dealt with using your preferred official language, but it could result in your case being held up somewhat in some areas of the province,” she says.

Those involved in family law matters have the right to a bilingual or French court proceeding as well as all other hearings associated with their case, including procedural motions, pre-trial hearings, and hearings to assess costs, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

Daudlin, one of the few fluently bilingual family lawyers in Toronto who advocates in both official languages, says it can be frustrating to deal with the justice system when your first language is not English. In Toronto, for example, at the Ontario Court of Justice, she says there is only one judge who handles French-language family law cases on a regular basis.

“The intention is that everyone has the same access to justice, but that’s not always the case for people whose operating language isn’t English — the system needs more resources to be able to serve everyone equally,” Daudlin says.

Francophones are often faced with a dilemma: would it be more expedient to appear in court in English where there is often a larger pool of judges and more court resources available to assist them or to have their matter handled in their official language, she says.

“In some cases, French-speaking people choose to have their case handled by the court in English because it’s a more expedient path, but that comes with challenges because they may not be able to fully understand what's happening,” Daudlin says.

While translators are available for court cases, there is still so much that can be lost in translation depending on the dialect spoken by the translator, she says.

“As a francophone myself, I think it's important that the legal system in the province of Ontario regularly offers services in both official languages,” Daudlin says.

She says she wonders how many francophones are choosing to have their cases heard in English simply because of the lack of French-speaking judges and French-language resources.

“We need to determine how many people are electing not to proceed in French because of the potential delay,” Daudlin says.

“Maybe one of the solutions is for people to demand to exercise their French-language rights. The greater the number of people demanding that their rights be met, the more likely the Ministry will sit-up and listen,” she says.

Dealing with a family law matter is stressful enough and compounding that with the challenge of not having access to services in your official language is creating an unnecessary barrier for some, Daudlin says.

“When you enter the courthouse, ask for their French-language services. It is your right to be served in the official language of your choosing, and you ought not to have to compromise the level of accessibility or quality of service in this regard.”

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