Ryerson innovators set cutoff for lawyers to fix family law crisis

Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone is launching a new tool to help lawyers address the access-to-justice issues that plague the family law system.

Ryerson innovators set cutoff for lawyers to fix family law crisis
Chris Bentley is calling on the rest of the profession to pitch in to the effort to fix family law by May 25, 2020.

Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone is launching a new tool to help lawyers address the access-to-justice issues that plague the family law system.

As part of the launch, LIZ managing director Chris Bentley is calling on the rest of the profession to pitch in to the effort by May 25, 2020.

“We came up with a portal that’s free for all, and a triage system will be spearheaded and launched by the new year. And what we will say to everyone else is that we need to solve this problem by next May,” says Bentley.

Bentley says LIZ is in the process of rolling out a new tool to the public that will help move the conversation along: a free, online dashboard called the family law portal that lets users anonymously answer a list of questions to get a sense of their options for resolving family law disputes. Bentley says he will be touring community and legal organizations across the province to introduce the online dashboard.

The dashboard, which launched on June 20, has six questionnaires that each take between 15 minutes and an hour to complete. But unlike tools such as TurboTax — which takes a complicated process and breaks it down into online questionnaires — Ryerson’s tool can’t actually take any steps to resolve the family law disputes, says Bentley. That’s because lawyers have a monopoly over family law services, and the services are tightly monitored by the Law Society of Ontario, the judiciary and the government, he says.

That’s why Bentley says he set a deadline of next year for the profession to join Ryerson and take action on family law.

“There are two problems with the access-to-justice conversation. What does access to justice mean? And when are we going to get there? Well, guess what, the profession doesn’t give you an answer to that, other than more judges, more lawyers, more money. Well, we have added all of that — lawyers, judges and money — over the decades, but we aren’t seemingly closer to access. If you don’t know where you are going or when, you will never get there,” he says.

The new family law portal is the first step of a four-part technology project on family law at Ryerson’s LIZ, says Bentley. The second part, a “triage” system, will launch in the new year and will serve a similar purpose to an in-depth initial consultation, where people can get a sense of what steps they need to take before they commit to a lawyer, mediation or other resolution to a family law issue. The university is looking for lawyers to help spearhead the triage system, he says.

Ryerson’s tech project started about a year ago, but it dates back to Bentley’s time as attorney general, when he says the government struggled to expand successful projects such as Justice on Target to the issues facing family law.

Four years ago, Ryerson started looking at the issue through a Family Reform Community Collaboration, and the new project finally got off the ground last year with funding from Avanti Foundation and the Law Foundation of Ontario, says Bentley.

Ryerson is not the only entity working on the problems facing the family law field, where 64 per cent to 74 per cent of parties are self-represented at the time a case is filed, according to research compiled by the Canadian government. The LSO has a Family Law Action Plan that includes allowing paralegals to offer more family law services and expanding the use of limited-scope retainers. The website, StepsToJustice.ca, features a tool by Community Legal Education Ontario called Family Law Guided Pathways to help people fill out court forms.

Despite the work at Ryerson and by other organizations, Bentley says, it is not enough — hence the 2020 deadline.

“You can’t go into a room these days where somebody doesn’t know somebody who is involved in family breakup. It touches everybody,” he says. “The talk has gone on for too long. It is a right to justice, not a privilege, and it’s the people's right — not the profession’s right, to deliver or give them the ability to get that justice.”

Free newsletter

Our daily newsletter is FREE and keeps you up to date on all the developments in the Ontario legal community. Please complete the form below and click on subscribe for daily newsletters from Law Times.

Recent articles & video

Small claims court judges have little sway on anti-SLAPP cases

Davies' Kearney joins National Cannabis Working Group

Orlando Da Silva named chief administrator of ATSSC

Competition bureau to give lawyers more warning on deal reviews

Court fines concrete company $130,000 for worker’s death

OPSEU shows solidarity with injured workers’ groups over aid cuts

Most Read Articles

Court ruling could change law for spouses who co-own house

Audio tracks of lawyer-client chats accidentally exposed

Pressure mounts on MAG as more decry legal aid cuts

Province probing family law legislation