Online tool empowers self-represented family litigants

By Staff

A new online tool being developed by Toronto family lawyer Kathryn Hendrikx and an IT partner will be welcome news for the huge number of self-represented litigants in family law.

A major cause of delay in family law today is incorrectly completed court forms, says Hendrikx, principal of Hendrikx Family Law.

"Ontario Divorce Resource (ODR) is an online tool that cuts a clear way through the administrative labyrinth, enabling a person to fully complete their forms," she tells "ODR is currently in beta testing. Properly filled forms assist self-representing parties in family law to proceed to court, mediation, or to hire a lawyer for crucial legal advice rather than for bureaucratic form-filling."

A report by Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone warns of an access-to-justice crisis in Canadian family law. It shows that of the 300,000 family law cases in Canada per year, only half are resolved within one year, and many take longer than three years. It also highlights that between 50 and 80 per cent of family litigants do not have a lawyer. While more than half start out willing to pay for counsel, they either run out of money or get frustrated with the slow progress and decide to go it alone.

ODR, which should be ready for a full launch in about three months, is analogous to online software that simplifies the process of filing a tax return, says Hendrikx who recently gave a presentation on the tool at Stanford University Law School.

“Presenting at Stanford Law School was a highlight," she says. “ODR was very well received and generated inquiries from the U.S. and Europe. Our program facilitates the questions needed to complete the forms,” she says. “Forms can be a very complicated process. ODR’s goal is to simplify and help the self-represented litigant move their family law process forward.

Part of the reason family law has so many self-represented litigants is the perception that the issues — child custody and access, child support, property division and spousal support — should be intuitive, Hendrikx says.

“People think, ‘We just want a schedule for the kids’ or ‘Tell me how much child support I’m owed or have to pay.’ But there’s a great deal of detail required that is not intuitive,” she says.

The Ontario government has tried to streamline things by providing templates, guidebooks, information centres and PDF forms online and at court services offices, Hendrikx says.

“There is a wide variety of information on the internet which encourages people to do it themselves. The problem is the complexity of the forms. It’s overwhelming,” she says.

And the family law information centres are very busy, Hendrikx says.

“There are long lines and wait times. You have to obtain the right forms and fill them in completely and correctly. If there’s a misspelled address or a date entered in the wrong format, the case doesn’t move forward,” she says.

The ODR program takes those family law forms and breaks them down question by question, Hendrikx says.

“We collect data once and the program auto-populates all the forms, so there’s less chance of errors or omissions," she says.

Hendrikx says the program then poses simple questions that can be answered by clicking yes or no or selecting an option — Are you currently married? Have you been served with papers? Do you wish to file for divorce? It goes on to specifically ask what the user is seeking, and provides instant links to useful information such as how to obtain a copy of your marriage certificate, which you need in order to file for divorce.

“When you apply for a divorce you have to resolve all of the issues arising from the relationship — children, support, property — at the same time,” she says. “That comes as a surprise to many people.

Hendrikx says she will launch the tool in Ontario and hopes to extend its reach across Canada and into the U.S.

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