Families can access legal help during COVID health crisis

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Navigating the court system without help is challenging at the best of times. But that’s exactly what more than half of those heading to family court do in this country.

Now they face an even greater challenge with very limited court operations and hearings held only on an urgent basis in the face of a world pandemic in which we are all trying to keep our distance from one another.

“We’re receiving more calls now and they’re almost always about parenting issues as a result of the pandemic,” said Barrie lawyer Amanda Chapman who has been fielding some calls from self-represented litigants, who are people who try to work on their own case without a lawyer. “Some self reps have asked questions about continuing to pay support.

“I’m just finding that those self-reps don’t necessarily understand that the courts are available if needed.”

Chapman is the volunteer administrator of a program unique to Barrie designed to provide some help to those without a lawyer.

The Summary Legal Counsel Project ensures that every Wednesday, when case settlement hearings are heard for family court matters, two lawyers are on hand at the Barrie courthouse available at the reduced rate of $200 per hour to help with at least a part of the process. Earlier this year, a group of lawyers launched a similar program in Toronto based on the Barrie initiative. 

Given that normal courthouse operations have been suspended, that availability has been disrupted. So Chapman helps where she can, pointing people in the right direction or even walking them through some options.

She’s finding that there are concerns over parenting in light of COVID-19 as well as support, given all the layoffs forcing people to instead rely on the emergency response benefit for now. There also families who are now facing other issues, including some dire ones.

Even though the Summary Legal Counsel Project isn’t operating, there is help for those who need it right now.

The Law Society of Ontario is offering self-represented litigants 30 minutes of free assistance to help people determine whether the issue they’re facing is urgent or not. That could be accessed through the emergency family law referral line at 1-800-268-7568.

Legal Aid Ontario has dramatically expanded its availability as well.

“We really prioritize looking at ways that we can provide services in a remote world,” said Lisa Banerjee, director general for Legal Aid Ontario’s Central-East District, which includes Barrie, explaining that more phone and online services are available.

Key, though, is that some legal advice is more readily available at the moment, intended to get people moving in the right direction, such as helping with information related to procedures, to their case specifically, how to move forward and what forms to use.

“Clients can currently receive over the phone summary legal advice in the areas of family and criminal law… Legal Aid Ontario is waiving financial eligibility requirements for summary legal advice,” Banerjee said. 

In addition, University of Windsor law school professor Julie Macfarlane and those at the National Self-Represented Litigants Project have been “working flat out creating resources for SRLs.

“We’re seeing all kinds of concerns and anxieties from people about what they do about those existing orders and if they can change them,” she said.

The website contains information about what people can do on their own. Those involved in the project have created letter templates that can be adapted and used by those without a lawyer who are dealing with family issues related to the health crisis and are not getting a response from the other parent.

Macfarlane said there is also guidance available to those who want to apply for an urgent hearing without the help of a lawyer, which she said has been done. There are also short summaries of some of the urgent cases that the courts have been hearing and takeaways. She has also created a webinar.

Family courts have long been dealing with the issue of people showing up without a lawyer and Macfarlane hopes that issues surrounding COVID-19 will help bring around solutions more quickly, such as allowing for the use of paralegals and more affordable alternatives to lawyers in Ontario. 

“About 50 per cent of people begin with a lawyer and then they run out of money and become self-represented,” she said. “We actually have data that shows clearly their outcomes are significantly worse than people who have legal representation.”

Both Macfarlane and Chapman will tell those looking for information that the courts are, for the most part, respecting pre-existing court orders and agreements. And they suggest they first try to work out the situation on their own. And that could include coming to an interim agreement.

“I always tell them to approach the other parent and explain why they’re looking at least temporarily, to pay something other than that court order. And most reasonable parties will expect that,” said Chapman. “Because the expectation is at some point you’re going to be called back to work and you’re going to be earning your regular salary.”

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