Speaker's Corner: First family law moot organizers seek recognition of profession’s poor cousin

People too often think of family law as the poor cousin of the profession. To compound the problem, law students seldom get exposure to it, resulting in fewer and fewer graduates becoming family lawyers. As professor Nick Bala of the Queen’s University Faculty of Law stated, “Family law is often viewed as being at or near the bottom of the ‘academic pyramid’ within law schools.” A 2009 report that considered law students’ perspectives on family law practice by the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund confirmed Bala’s view.

The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts’ Ontario chapter is seeking to change that attitude. One of its many efforts was Canada’s first provincial family law moot competition, the Walsh family law moot, in Toronto on March 16, 2013.

The question to ask, of course, is why was our moot the first provincewide family law moot in Canada? After all, there are a number of different moots dealing with areas such as corporate law, tax, intellectual property, aboriginal rights, criminal practice, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and public international law. Why did this take so long? It seems people often consider family law more like social work and, as a result, law students are not that interested in it.

None of the Walsh family moot participants would have agreed with that sentiment. Judges from all three levels of courts and experienced family law practitioners came out to support and judge the law students’ first foray into the world of family law mooting. Various law firms from across Ontario as well as DIVORCEmate and MySupportCalculator helped fund the moot. Scores of family lawyers contacted us to volunteer their services and skills to assist with the day. All in all, the day offered a tiny glimpse into the collegiality of the family law bar and the judiciary.

It is only fitting that the moot is named after former justice George Walsh, a pioneer in family law. Walsh was the leader of the family law division of the Toronto region’s Superior Court of Justice and very involved in family law reform and alternative dispute resolution. He developed a team approach to adjudicating family law cases that was the envy of every other jurisdiction. For example, he was a pioneer in early case management. He also helped establish the first mediation service at the Superior Court of Justice. It is only apt, then, that the establishment of a moot to try to encourage law students to choose family law would acknowledge Walsh’s work.

When it came time to invite the law schools to participate, the responses were overwhelmingly in favour. Similarly, on the day of the moot, the participants arriving at Osgoode Hall were brimming with excitement. The students and their supervisors arrived early as they were anxious to start the day. Every single volunteer showed up. Walsh and his wife Mary arrived to observe the moot teams.

Participants practised real law that day. The teams argued twice in front of different judges. The panel of three judges scored the mooters according to preset guidelines, including speaking ability and delivery, organization of their argument, questions from the bench, and preparation and development of their case.

Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of the Ontario Court of Justice joined Walsh to present the awards. Osgoode Hall Law School took home the cup this year. In addition, Osgoode took first and second place for appellant and respondent teams.

There was a valuable lesson here. In 1989, an actor playing a farmer walked onto his field and heard a voice that whispered, “If you build it, they will come.” It took a long time to hold the first family law moot in Ontario. Thankfully, it will not take long at all to hold the next one. Plans for the 2014 Walsh family law moot are underway. We plan to keep building on our efforts to acknowledge the importance of family law.

Patti Cross is family counsel with the Ontario Court of Justice. She’s also a board member of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. Those interested in the moot can contact the association at [email protected].

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