Lawyer group challenges family law protests, local activists not backing down

A group representing more than 11,000 lawyers throughout the province is sounding off against recent demonstrations in the region, essentially crying foul.

The County & District Law Presidents’ Association says, through a letter penned by Brockville attorney Michael Johnston, that recent protests by Canadians For Family Law Reform have brought “unfair attention to the family justice system.”

There has been a number of high-profile demonstrations carried out over the past few months in Sarnia and Chatham, some in front of local lawyers’, including George McFadyen, Nancy Pringle, and Ian Bruce, law offices. Activists recently joined members in other cities across Ontario on Family Day for a public candle-light vigil to “honour broken families” and “demand changes in family law.”

Family law reform proponents have said the current system is broken, adding that some family lawyers intentionally stir more conflict between former spouses and cash in from cases that can last years.

CFFLR co-founder Jim Canie said that they’re trying to bring awareness to the community about the problems that exist in the family law system, adding that he believes while it’s a big problem in Ontario and across Canada, “it’s a huge problem in Sarnia.”

“Unless you’re involved with the family law system, or you know somebody, have a relative or a friend, you don’t know this is going on,” he said.

Last week, Sarnia lawyer Janet Whitehead, who is vice-chairperson of the County & District Law Presidents’ Association, was quoted saying she believes most family lawyers actually try to settle cases as quickly and efficiently as possible, especially with the high demand for their services.

“Frankly we don’t have enough family lawyers in Sarnia,” she said Friday. “Most of them have very heavy workloads and so it’s not in their best interest to drag things out. They want to move forward, they want to get their clients serviced and it’s always important to have a happy client.”

In most cases, the family law field now recommends using alternative methods to resolving disputes than court, noted Whitehead. Sarnia residents can now actually access mediation services through a new program at the courthouse.

Dave Burgess, a co-founder of the local family law reform group, responded saying some family law lawyers tell their clients to demand more and more from their ex, convincing them to make more claims against them that they wouldn’t have done otherwise. “What results are bankruptcies, psychological trauma for children, and grueling court battles that can last, in some instances, 10 years or more.”

Ontario recently expanded its unified family court program to include Sarnia and Chatham courthouses. Services include a mandatory information session, free on-site meditation, an information referral coordinator and subsidized off-site mediation.

Burgess responded saying, “It should be clearly pointed out that Sarnia is not in fact a unified Family court location,” adding that the law association’s letter is ambiguous and “leads the reader to assume Sarnia supposedly enjoys the benefits of the unified family court system when that’s simply not the case.”

When asked if people are aware of these services, Whitehead said the association is “working on public education.”

“Most of these expansions, at least here in Sarnia, are relatively new,” she said. “They’ve only been implemented since the fall and we’ve been trying to get the word out to people.”

Whitehead, who has practiced family law for 17 years, said she has seen the system improve. However, she said it is always evolving because family dynamics change with each new generation.

Local family law reform activists disagree.

Years ago, women didn’t work out of the home, so the division of household assets wasn’t as complicated. Canada actually only passed its first Divorce Act in 1968.

“Our members will continue to bring what we feel is very fair and much needed attention to a broken Family Law system here in Sarnia and we will not back down on this strategy,” said Burgess.

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