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Family practitioners targeted by protests

|Written By Kendyl Sebesta

Family lawyers are creating added conflict between former spouses in order to cash in on cases languishing in the province’s court system, says an activist group that launched protests against a practitioner in Sarnia, Ont., last month.

Steven Benmor

Canadians for Family Law Reform, an organization that describes itself as a watchdog over family court matters, picketed outside the Sarnia courthouse late last month and has sparked controversy by protesting against local family lawyers.

According to the organization’s web site, the group hopes to transform the province’s family court system by lodging complaints with the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Ministry of the Attorney General. It often carries out picketing and protests to speak out against what it says is a broken system.

“We are a group of individuals consisting of men and women who are discouraged with the Family Law legal system,” the group states on its web site.

“What appears to be simple matters are taking years in court to be dealt with and finalized. These cases are taking vicious tolls on people both emotionally and financially.”

But George McFadyen, a family lawyer in Sarnia targeted by the group’s protests in February, says the organization has yet to offer any suggestions for reform and has instead focused on denigrating the system.

“The group appears to be made primarily up of people I opposed in court who weren’t happy with the court’s ruling in their case and decided to form a group to try to sway ongoing litigation in their favour through intimidation,” says McFadyen.

“They are not a legitimate group dealing with family law reform.”

McFadyen alleges members of the group have made defamatory statements against him, shouted at him in the street, and sent e-mails to fellow lawyers saying they were going to “take him down.”

“What they’re trying to do is bring pressure on us to back away from ongoing litigation,” he says.

“That’s not going to happen. They don’t seem to be interested in family law reform. They just seem to want to degrade lawyers and judges.”

Other family lawyers say that while the group is entitled to its opinions and they can understand the frustrations with the court system, not all practitioners are to blame for delays and high retainers.

“There are lawyers out there who overcharge and, understandably, there are a lot of concerns,” says Steven Benmor, a family lawyer at Benmor Family Law Group.

“When someone gets married, they don’t set aside a fund for their divorce and they don’t plan or anticipate the costs associated with it. So when it does happen, they are understandably shocked by it.”

Benmor notes the severity of a divorce or separation could also leave many clients feeling that the court system is broken.

“Right away, we have the fact that it’s not something a person plans for and that, coupled with the fact that divorce goes right to the core of your life, can result in a spouse who is enormously afraid and insecure,” says Benmor. “So their statements aren’t necessarily unfair.

They might just be compounded by their personal experiences in family law.”

Benmor adds that clients’ assessments of the cost of a family lawyer are also subjective and often based on their income.

“For some clients, charging even a little will seem like a lot. What one person could see as overcharging, another could see as undercharging.

So whether it’s cheap or inexpensive, it could still be a lot of money to some people, which may lead some people to say they can’t afford lawyers and therefore the system is broken. It’s based on perspective.”

But Canadians for Family Law Reform isn’t alone in expressing concerns with the family law system. Although its tone and approach are certainly very different, an interim report by the Law Commission of Ontario released last month noted many people feel the family law system is “convoluted” and “fragmented.”

“The problems in the delivery of family justice services call for innovation and responsiveness to Ontario’s changing demographics,” Patricia Hughes, executive director of the law commission, wrote in the report.

“Individuals in a situation of family breakdown need a wide variety of family services, ideally through a single entry point.

In the short term, though, we expect that early information, legal advice, and support can help more people in finding solutions before they reach the court, preventing stress, frustrations, and significant expenses.”

The report called additional reforms in family law, including creating a web site with information for families; innovation in the delivery of legal services; and comprehensive family law centres that are closer to the communities that need them.

In Sarnia, as in many cities in the province, family law matters take place in both the Ontario Court and the Superior Court. McFadyen says the Ontario Court in Sarnia often hears family matters quickly but notes cases may take longer in the Superior Court due to long trial lists and regulations.

“There are a lot of divorces and family law matters going through the courts right now. That may just be the way the times are. Lawyers and judges are doing their best to work with the available resources to get things done in an appropriate manner.”

But McFadyen says while cases may take time to move through the family court, Canadians for Family Law Reform’s approach to the problem hasn’t been helpful.

“The primary purpose of the group seemed to be to come after me. These guys are just vindictive and most people in the community seem to be aware of where all of this is coming from.”

Canadians for Family Law Reform didn’t respond to a request for comment on the issue.

  • JP
    So,it is obvious that the current way divore is handled is in need of an over-haul and the provencial government has completely failed at rendering recommendations made by its own advisory board "for the sake of the children" study identified and made 30 or so areas of great concern with not 1 being implimented!...this group wishes to see changes made and accoutability of all people involved in current system. Why not remove the whole thing from the "court" system and appoint provincial "MEDIATERS" to resolve matters with time-tables and severe consequences for dis-honorable conduct by either participant...we dont need lawyers we need RESULTS...every case begins at 50/50...and the childrens well-being Priority#1...FAIR is all you need be!!!
  • Michael Mchale..
    How to expedite a divorce....Place a fixed cost cap , based on the complexity of the divorce..To be set by the people...

    The courts will be open and clear,as the lawyers , will do their best to settle as quickly as possible..no reason to fan the fires for profit..and any delay will cost them time...They will want to operate like a McDonald's drive thru
  • Joy Wakefield
    As a law student and child of a high conflict divorce, I feel that I can add something to the discussion. My experience was terrible, and I'd love to meet the judges who were partially responsible for that and tell them.

    I participated in a clinical family program in Kingston, and worked reviewing family files in Toronto over the summer. Some lawyers do a great job, and some do their clients a disservice and polarize the dispute.

    First, the government needs to combine all of the family courts (federal and provincial). Second, we need experienced family judges educated on the social impact of their judgements. Third, we need better education for children of divorce. Fourth, we need a system that categorizes files according to the level of conflict, to reduce congestion and to more quickly set the tone for those cases.

    The system never anticipated the kind of family breakdown going on today, and it is far too rigid to respond to the resulting needs.
  • Jason
    The Attorney General has received numerous letters of family law complaints from Sarnia. Local MP Bob Bailey has shared those generic lack of responses. The Upper Law Society has over 25 complaints regarding one particular Sarnia Lawyer and they still have no "reasonable suspicion" for corrective measures. That's not good business in our community. The legal profession governs its own. No one wants to fix the family law system its BIG business. Most intelligent people realize the state of the current system. That should sum up Mr. McFadyen's argument, and I praise the other legal professionals for your truthfullness. Looking after the children's best interest would just not be profitable. The system doesn't care about our children. There is something seriously wrong with family law not just in Sarnia but in our country. Family law deserves some much needed compassion from people who have good family values. Family counsellors should be dealing with marital breakdown.
  • Anon
    And yes, CFFLR is a good group. Lawyers have the LSUC for a lobby this is our for the end users of the courts. If you are bad lawyer and the LSUC never disciplines them, there is a problem. To many legal conflicts are allowed to be stand in the courts.
  • Anon
    You the lawyers, and we the citizens, know what needs to be done to change the process. Before judges made decisions behind closed doors. now it drags on and on needlessly and some judges and courts are part of the problem. LAO knows the problems and report after report, dollar after dollar is wasted. Time to make big changes now. No more reports, no more studies just sit down with the end users, the citizens and make changes.
  • Don Desaulniers
    There is a relatively simple solution to the family law mess, and that is Flat Fees. It has worked wonders to keep real estate lawyers' fees reasonable over the years, and it would immediately do the same for family law matters.
  • TonyB
    As far as this group CFFLR goes. I have no respect for the way they have conducted themselves. Here is a group that came out of the gate slinging mud at Lawyers , actually one in particular (GM). I believe our Family court system needs to be changed, but attacking Lawyers etc is not away to change the system. This group needs to go to Ottawa , talk with MP's and MPP's and protest in a manner that is respectful in order for members of parliament to take them seriously. This group will complain that they have extended invitations to Bob Bailey etc and they have not received a response from them. To be honest i don't blame MR. Bailey for not responding to this group especially the way they have conducted themselves on there site with the name calling and attacks on GM and Judges etc. It would be Political suicide to attach your name to this group. Oh BOB LAW if your believe in your cause use your real name, no need to hide STAND UP AND BE PROUD.
  • MikeMurphy
    "Oh BOB LAW if your believe in your cause use your real name, no need to hide STAND UP AND BE PROUD."

    What's good for the Goose...

    What is your real name - the whole thing TonyB.
  • Steven Jacob
    Tony M, you are obviously a shill for the lawyers involved. As an outsider, I've attended meetings. I have no stake in the law system. I am simply a concerned citizen who wants to see children put first. This CFFLR group has been more than professional in their approach, offering solutions along the way. Sure there are some emotional people ranting, mind you. GM is flat out wrong when is says they are targeting him only. They have protested primarily in front of the courthouse, along with several law offices. They have public meetings to which GM is entitled to come and participate in solutions to the issues. Issues raised include lack of accountability of the FRO, as well as lack of oversight over the whole process. They have discussed concerns with politicians and more. If GM wants to talk, though, why doesn't he discuss how he bypasses the most efficient means of resolution to these matters, because his wife's a judge. This promotes lengthy cases in the Superior Court as a result.
  • TonyB
    Family lawyers are creating added conflict between former spouses in order to cash in on cases. To me this statement is only half true. How about the clients that are being stubborn , unreasonable or just plain lying to and with their Lawyers.Here is an example. I personally know a woman who has had custody of her children for 13 years, about 4 years ago this woman had to go back to court with her ex-husband for lets just say an unwillingness of the said part to want to continue to pay child support. The ex-husband claimed that he has had custody of the children for the last 8-9 years. Without getting into all the details . Who is to blame for this bold face lie and the amount of time something so simple to prove , wasted 1 years worth of time going back and forth to court.The blame doesn't just fall onto the Lawyers in this situation, it also falls onto the the shoulders of the ex-husband who perpetrated the lie to begin with. Lets look at the whole picture here Lawyers and clients.
  • MikeMurphy
    If it was so easy to prove, why did the wife's lawyer allow it to drag on for a year?
  • Somya
    Have you no Idea on how slowly the family law courts worked?
  • MikeMurphy
    #2

    The Divorce Act clearly states both parents should have as much access to their children as possible. Judges do not see it this way and typically order 3 hours visitation a week and some over night stays every other week. Kruk shows a 40% rate of contact is required otherwise the parent-child bond can sever. One of the major components of the London riots was a lack of fathers in their children's lives. The court is an incubator for future negative outcomes and societal costs.

    A model of a presumption of equal parenting for fit parents must be enacted to reduce the discretion of judges who currently act in a social context that harms children. That context is arrived at through feminist training that typically sees women as victims not sentient and independent adults. The parents were equal before the divorce, in the eyes of their children, and should be thereafter as well.
  • MikeMurphy
    #1
    I have calculated that, on average, every business day in Canada there are 260-280 divorces working their way through the system. Not all are going to trial but many, if not most, extract a social consequence on the actors involved, especially children. The system was designed by lawyers for lawyers not the clients. It is a rare and lucrative business model that caters solely to the operators of the business and not the customer.

    Within this dysfunctional model children are, in 90% of cases, ordered to reside with one parent, which is mom, while dad is marginalized as a visitor. Sole physical custody to mom is indeed telling the children only one parent is important, the other, not so much. This model has grave negative consequences for children that do indeed last a lifetime, and can become intergenerational. (see Kruk studies).
  • Glenn Cheriton
    As president of the Canadian Equal Parenting Council, the group that is presenting a national divorce reforms bill, we have presented a collection of best practices from other jurisdictions which provide better outcomes for parents and children. Even Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler says the system needs to be completely rebuilt. The adversarial nature of the legal system is not the place for conflict resolution of vulnerable people going through divorce. The Attorney General, the bar associations, and Law Commissions won't meet with us or other parents organizations to discuss alternatives. Readers should ask themselves why.
  • Judith Huddart
    As a family lawyer with over 30 years experience, I share the frustration of the court's inability to address more than the legal issues when families separate. Those of us who practice in this area know only too well that separation issues are often about 80 percent emotional and about 20 percent legal. Mediation is being promoted by government to offer a less adversarial option. This is a positive step. Collaborative Law/Practice, surprisingly, has not received the same promotion, despite the fact that this approach is the only option that currently offers families the support of legal, family, and/or financial professionals working as a team. This option is being offered in 18 communities across Ontario. As a lawyer, I am happy to work with other professionals who provide the expertise my clients need - at, most likely, a lesser hourly rate than most lawyers.
  • David Goar
    Having been a lawyer for 35 years and a litigant in divorce proceedings, I feel qualified to speak to this issue.

    The fault with the present system for the resolution of disputes arising upon the deterioration and disintegration of marriage, particularly when children are involved, lies in its structure. The adversary system is so ill suited for use in disputes of this nature, that if one set out purposefully to design a system intended to exacerbate and inflame the frictions and antipathies arising upon marriage breakdown, one could do no better than our current system.

    Unfortunately, the children of these unfortunate relationships are the biggest losers and the emotional scars and broken parental relationships can last a lifetime.

    This group is not incorrect. There are far too many in our profession who are mercenary enough to take advantage of emotionally distraught people for their own monetary advantage.
  • Allan K
    I am not affiliated with Canadians for Family Law Reform but I congratulate Mr. Goar for his perceptiveness, clarity and transparency. Mr. McFadyen's comments sound defensive, evasive and self-serving and not addressing the issues directly. CFLR (my short-form) who are clearly not legal associates cannot be expected to fall to Mr. McFadyen's demand that they provide an alternative to the current system. In my opinion it is sufficient that they say that it is broken and Mr. Goar's honesty concurs with this.
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