Professors at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, ON have begun a pilot project for those appearing in court for separation or divorce-related proceedings without legal representation — or emotional resolution — to help them deal with thorny familial and bureaucratic issues.
Cuts to legal aid combined with a lack of knowledge about alternatives to court proceedings have created a situation in which 75% of litigants show up to family court for custody, access, and support cases without representation or even a rudimentary knowledge of jargon and procedures necessary to facilitate a speedy appearance. More importantly, they are unaware of the emotional minefield that such procedures can be — both for themselves and their children. The “Parent Information Pilot Project,” which is offered on Monday evenings in locations in Toronto and North York, hopes to address this lack of legal knowledge and the emotional difficulties that go hand-in-hand with divorce.
Supported by a $184,000 grant from the Donner Foundation, the free program is led by a lawyer and a mental health worker, and covers topics such as proper jargon and procedures of court appearances. It also introduces alternatives to litigation — such as negotiation or mediation.
The emotional component to the program is intended to help people safely navigate the murky waters of “emotional divorce.” Parents learn what they can expect from both themselves and their children as procedures advance, and what traps divorcing couples commonly fall into. The course highlights the emotional stages adults pass through during separation and common reactions of children during disputes. Instructors emphasize the importance of recognizing the damage that can be caused by involving a child in a bitter dispute. “The aim is to increase awareness of what is involved and what some of the alternatives are,” says Patrick Monahan, a professor at Osgoode and one of the program’s organizers.
The success of the project will be evaluated via questionnaires administered after the classes, and then again six months after completion. A tally of the number of couples returning to court will also help measure the fortunes of those involved. In order to avoid conflict, separating couples aren’t allowed to attend the same session, and seminar leaders take issues such as abuse into consideration before suggesting alternatives to court and explaining emotional reactions.
Attendance at the weekly meetings has hovered around seven or eight people, according to Monahan, and there’s growing support for the program in the judicial system. “Judges are starting to recommend the course,” he says. “Staff are also starting to hand out brochures, and there are posters at the Family Division of Provincial Court to let people know about the service.”
For more information about the Parent Information Pilot Project, call (416) 650-8104.