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The role of the Office of the Children’s Lawyer

Families can often get help from the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (OCL) when divorcing parents can’t agree on the custody of the children, says Kitchener family lawyer Lorrie Stojni

“When there’s a dispute as to who’s going to have custody and where the kids are going to live, sometimes the court, usually at the invitation of the parties, will request the involvement of the Children’s Lawyer to assist them in coming up with a resolution,” Stojni, a partner with Giffen Lawyers LLP, tells AdvocateDaily.com

The office runs under the auspices of the provincial attorney general and is provided at no cost to families, explains Stojni. Their mandate is to advocate on behalf of the child and present their views and opinions, which are sometimes lost when the parents are in dispute and emotions are running high.

The process begins with a case conference if it’s determined that representation for the child can be helpful, but a judge must first be convinced, she says. Parents must then complete a lengthy intake form, which the OCL reviews to determine if they will take on the case.

If they agree, Stojni says the OCL provides one of three options — one is to assign a lawyer to meet with the parties, gather all the necessary information and talk to the children to ascertain their views and preferences.

“Usually the Children’s Lawyer would allocate a lawyer only in files where the children are a little bit older and they’re able to provide clear instructions to a lawyer,” she says.

That involves determining the strength of the child’s view, as well as the consistency and independence of their outlook, she says.

The lawyer then does a complete investigation, which Stojni says includes meeting with the child at least three times, as well as meeting with the parents and their lawyers during a disclosure meeting to discuss what the child is saying.

“And then hopefully the parents would take that into account and come to a settlement,” she says.

The second option is for the OCL to assign a social worker, a process that results in a full assessment report. Stojni says that often occurs when the children are younger and when the parents have such issues as addictions, domestic violence or are involved in criminal activity.

The third option for the OCL is to assign both a lawyer and a social worker to the case.

“The clinician can give evidence but they can’t argue the case, so you need the lawyer” in very high-conflict matters, says Stojni.

The two go through the process together, meeting the parents and the children and then discussing the case in private. But Stojni says in this scenario there’s no report, although there may be an affidavit if it goes before the court.

“Much of the time the court gives a great deal of weight to what the Children’s Lawyer has said because they’re an independent third party conducting an investigation and looking at this from very fresh eyes,” she says. “They’re not there for either of the parents, they’re solely focused on the children. So it’s a very unique opportunity to have a third party come in.

“It can be very helpful because often when the parents are in litigation, they’re thinking about these issues from their own perspective.”

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