Ontarians with concurrent family and criminal law matters now have the option of having their issues managed by a single judge in Canada’s first-ever integrated domestic violence court.
The court opened June 10 at Toronto’s 311 Jarvis St. courthouse, where it will undergo a two-year trial run as a pilot project.
Justice Geraldine Waldman of the Ontario Court of Justice spearheaded efforts to introduce the specialized court. She says it’s essential for those within the justice system to identify areas for improvement.
“We were looking at the intersection, in the broader sense, of family and criminal law because they overlap significantly in a number of places,” she notes.
“What’s interesting is the fact that notwithstanding that we’re dealing with the same litigants and the same situations, we have these two systems that overwhelmingly operate as silos independent of each other without cross-referencing one to the other.”
For example, bail orders affect access arrangements, leaving judges like Waldman trying to decipher them and how they might be a factor in family law rulings.
She also found she was often dealing in an “information vacuum” in which none of the parties knew the parameters of such bail orders. In other cases, bail terms were overly restrictive and difficult and created further complications on the family law side.
“On the other hand, I often felt that I had information that the criminal-side judge would really like to have in terms of understanding more fully and robustly what was going on with this family,” says Waldman.
So while both family and criminal law judges were individually doing their jobs adequately, Waldman feels there were untapped opportunities to work together for families.
“That was no one’s fault; it’s just that the system was created in a way that made it difficult for us to work together,” she says.
With those observations in mind, a wide-ranging group of justice system participants, led by Waldman, worked to close the gap. After failing to uncover any easy ways to share information between family and criminal law judges, Waldman’s committee decided to look at other models.
That took them to the United States, where integrated domestic violence courts have been running for about a decade.
The Ontario committee approached a group of judges and court staff in Buffalo, N.Y., and picked their brains on the system, first through a teleconference, and later by taking a road trip to observe the court in action.
“We thought, wow, this is a model that may actually allow us to accomplish some of the things that we’re trying to accomplish in terms of creating what we hope is a more holistic response to the family by having both cases dealt with independently . . . but by a single judge,” says Waldman.
“So, the concept of one judge, one family, taking the case conferencing model, and putting it into the integrated domestic violence court seemed like a really interesting way to try to work through some of the issues that we were finding in the intersection between these two areas of law.”
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as taking the U.S. model and dropping it into a Toronto courtroom. One of the key distinctions between the two legal systems is that rules prevent Ontario matters from being mandated into the integrated domestic violence court.
That means Waldman’s system will be populated by cases involving at least one litigant who qualifies for legal aid and with both parties consenting to transferring their matters to the new court.
“We hope that it will provide this much more holistic and integrated approach by having both cases heard by a single judge,” says Waldman.
“But I want to be clear: the rules as they apply to each [area of law] will remain.” In addition, she notes, the new court won’t administer trials but will do everything up to that or pleading.
Toronto criminal defence lawyer Adam Weisberg says he’s keeping an open mind about the integrated domestic violence court and is reserving judgment until its structure fully develops. He does see value for low-income clients who could benefit from having their matters integrated.
However, he’s concerned that the process of getting a matter into the court could cause cumbersome delays with issues that families need to deal with quickly.
“I just see getting into the [new] court as an extra step or an extra process before anything can be done,” he says. “I see that actually in practicality might take longer than just going and doing the orders the way we’ve been doing it all along.”
While the court opened June 10, Waldman wasn’t expecting a rush of cases to come forward at that time. The start date was being viewed as the next step in a process of making individuals aware of the court’s offerings.
“We are very excited about this,” she says. “We worked really hard to get here and are very optimistic that it will be a great success and believe this type of model will benefit these families tremendously.”