The federal justice department is facing calls for it to renew the funding for a multimillion-dollar family law program that provides grants for projects and resources to help couples who are splitting up.
Since 2009, the Supporting Families Experiencing Separation and Divorce Initiative has funded a wide range of projects from an innovative web site for families going through a separation to a pilot project in Nova Scotia to help in cases of high-conflict divorces.
However, the program was quietly allowed to sunset on March 31, and the justice department can’t say when it might be renewed.
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin says the initiative is exactly the kind of program that Canada’s legal system needs.
“I can tell you that family law is a woefully underfunded area that affects so many people that one would hope that the government would continue to fund initiatives that could make a difference in the lives of Canadians,” he says.
“Here you have a positive program that is making a difference to people’s lives. Rather than just axing the program — or, to use their euphemism, sunsetting it — why don’t they do a fresh review and see whether it could be improved?”
One of the problems divorcing couples face is the cost of legal advice — a problem the program addresses by helping to educate those going through a divorce, says Rankin.
“One of the things that is so problematic about family and divorce law is that so few of our legal aid programs have any budget to allow people who are going through that crisis period to get assistance.
Legal aid is woefully underfunded.”
Rankin says he plans to ask Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould about her plans for the program when she is expected to appear before the House of Commons justice committee to answer questions about her department’s spending plans.
Deputy Conservative justice critic Michael Cooper says the program is an important one and funding should be quickly restored.
“It is very disappointing that we have seen a lack of action from the government on the renewal of this program.
“It is surprising and I think it is indicative of the fact that this government, based upon its actions, appears to want to turn its back on a program that is vital to ensure access to justice,” he adds, pointing out that Wilson-Raybould has identified access to justice as one of her priorities.
Cooper says it can be difficult for young lawyers to navigate the court system, let alone a self-represented litigant going through a divorce.
“Here we have a program that is working, that is providing, in collaboration with the provinces, information to persons who might otherwise have difficulty maneuvering through a complex judicial process at a time in their lives that is among the most difficult and the federal government, instead of renewing that program that a review determined was working, was needed, is very disappointing.”
In the federal government’s main estimates, tabled in the House of Commons in February, the justice department said there was a decrease of $6.19 million in its spending due to the sunsetting of the SFI program. The justice department’s Report on Plans and Priorities for 2016-17, tabled in March, says the department wants to find the money needed to keep the program going.
“The Department will seek renewal of the Government’s Supporting Families Experiencing Separation and Divorce Initiative to pursue activities associated with funding that comes to an end on March 31, 2016,” the department wrote.
Since then, however, there has been silence.
While the government is free to add money over the course of the year to a department’s budget, funding to continue the program wasn’t mentioned in the federal budget and the justice department is refusing to say what exactly will happen to it.
“The Government remains committed to the Supporting Families Initiative,” wrote spokesman Ian McLeod, adding that Wilson-Raybould’s mandate letter includes the creation of a unified family court.
“Discussions are ongoing, but we’re not in a position to provide further information at this point.”
A justice department evaluation of the program, published in March 2014, found that it was working and that a national program to address the needs of families going through separation or divorce was necessary.
“The SFI activities are addressing many of the significant needs of families,” the evaluation said.
“Although some progress has been made, there continues to be a need for specific legal information that addresses the needs of families who are from linguistic or cultural minorities and those living in remote communities.
“Also, the complex needs of high conflict parents are not being completely addressed and those cases are creating extensive backlogs in the family justice system.
“Information alone is not sufficient for some of these families. Access to timely, low cost and accurate legal information at certain points in the legal process is particularly important for self-represented litigants, who represent an increasing proportion of family justice system users.”
One of those hoping the program is renewed is Rick Craig, executive director of the Justice Education Society of British Columbia. Craig’s group has received four or five grants under the program — most recently $175,000 in 2015 to expand its FamiliesChange.ca web site to make it a national resource and $55,000 to develop tools to help self-represented litigants in family law cases in B.C.
If the SFI program didn’t exist, finding the money for those kinds of initiatives would be difficult, says Craig.
“We would have had to try to get money out of places like the law foundations, but all the law foundations have been very restricted in the last few years because of low interest rates. To me, they [the justice department] have been a fabulous partner.”