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Unified Family Courts
One way people can settle their disputes is through mediation. In mediation, each party, together with a mediator, discusses the issues involved in their case to try to resolve these issues. The mediator is a neutral third party who helps the parties work towards a reasonable solution. Unlike regular courts, UFCs normally make low-cost mediation available.
The benefits of mediation are numerous. I have had cases in which I thought the parties would end up fighting all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada that were resolved in mediation. It is quicker and cheaper than the legal system. The parties shape the final decision, rather than having an outside third party (the judge) hurriedly fashion a settlement. People are more likely to stick to a mediated agreement that they have been involved in shaping, rather than an agreement imposed upon them by the court. Mediation leads to more flexible decisions than the legal system. It is a confidential process, which can be important given the private emotional and financial issues involved in a family law case. Mediation also better preserves relationships than litigation does.
At UFCs in Ontario, two types of mediation are available. If you have a court hearing on a particular day, you and your spouse can attend a free mediation session prior to the hearing, in an attempt to avoid proceeding with the hearing. There are also low-cost mediation services available where you and your spouse can attend several sessions in an attempt to resolve your entire case.
Availability of information.
Unlike in other types of cases, many people in family law cases do not have a lawyer. They are faced with the daunting task of navigating the court system, the law, and the rules of procedure that lawyers spend years learning, on their own. UFCs have attempted to deal with this situation by providing people with advice and assistance.
Each UFC in Ontario has a Family Law Information Centre. These centres provide a wealth of information and help to people who do not have lawyers. Many booklets are available to inform them; staff is there to assist, and a lawyer is available for a free, private consultation to help with people's specific problems.
To make the legal system more accessible to people without lawyers, UFCs have spawned many innovations. One innovation is the use of procedural rules that deal with the special circumstances of family law cases. For instance, examinations for discovery are a routine part of a court case. An examination for discovery is where each party is asked questions, under oath, by the other party's lawyer. The answers are recorded by an official reporter. However, in Ontario, the family law rules have made examinations for discovery the exception rather than the rule. This expensive and time-consuming process has been eliminated from all but the few family law cases in which it is really needed. As a result of procedural innovations such as this, generally, cases in UFCs move much more quickly than cases in the regular court system.
Similarly, in Ontario, a court form has been created for everything. For instance, in a regular court, to start a case you must draft what is known as a statement of claim, which can be a complicated document. However, if you need to apply for child support, you need not draft a statement of claim. You simply get the form called "Application," fill in some basic personal information, and put a check next to the box that states child support.
Finally, there are many other smaller ways in which UFCs have improved on the traditional court system. Being a party in a legal case is stressful and expensive. However, UFCs have made family law cases less stressful, cheaper, quicker, and more accessible to people without lawyers.