Affordable access to justice for separating families

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How can separating and divorcing families in BC get help to resolve their disputes safely, effectively, affordably, and without undue delay? The BC Ministry of Justice’s Family Justice Services Division (FJSD) provides services to do just this at 24 centres around the province and by web, phone and videoconferencing. This eNews will tell you more about their services and how to access them.

Family Justice and Justice Access Centres
The FJSD provides free, confidential legal information and mediation services at 21 Family Justice Centres and 3 Justice Access Centres in BC. In 2015/16 FJSD provided over 55,000 individual services, including:

  • mediation in more than 5,500 cases
  • 6,500 parents attending Parenting After Separation courses
  • 9,000 people getting self-help information services at Justice Access Centres.

Centres are staffed by trained interviewers and about 60 Family Justice Counsellors. The interviewers provide early information and determine clients’ initial needs. The Family Justice Counsellors are certified1 and accredited2 family mediators who help people with issues involving parenting arrangements, guardianship, contact, child support, and spousal support. Where appropriate, they can involve children in the mediation process if requested by the parents. There are also four Child Support Officers (located in Surrey, Kelowna, Vancouver and Nanaimo) who specialize in facilitating child and spousal support negotiations. They can assist with consent orders or variations in both Provincial and Supreme Court.

Justice Access Centres provide a greater range of services, delivered by various partner organizations as well as FJSD staff. In addition to the services available at Family Justice Centres, Justice Access Centres offer self-help resource rooms to support people with various family and civil justice needs (such as separation and divorce, housing or debt issues), limited legal advice from lawyers onsite, debt counselling, and civil mediation.

Find the nearest Family Justice or Justice Access Centre using the Clicklaw Help map. If you live in a community without one of these centres, or if you and your spouse live in different communities, you can get these services using the web, phone and videoconferencing. Call the centre nearest to you or Enquiry BC’s toll free number 1-800-663-7867 to learn more about these options.

What happens after you contact FJSD?
After you contact a Family Justice Centre, Justice Access Centre or the telephone service, an interviewer will talk to you about your reasons for making contact and provide a brief summary of FJSD’s services. The interviewer will make a preliminary assessment of your needs and you can consider whether the services available might help your family.

If you want to proceed with services you will see a Family Justice Counsellor or a Child Support Officer, usually within 1 to 2 weeks from your initial contact with FJSD. After speaking with you, the Family Justice Counsellor or Child Support Officer will contact the other party if:

  • you are interested in mediation
  • your issues are ones the FJSD deals with, and
  • the case is considered appropriate for mediation (e.g. no safety concerns and/or protection orders preventing contact).

A Family Justice Counsellor or Child Support Officer will meet separately with each party for an intake interview, and assess any issues related to safety, domestic violence and capacity to participate in the process. Family Justice Counsellors are mindful of these issues in all the services they provide. If parties are separated by distance or in locations without local offices, these services are also available through telephone and web-conferencing.

If you reach agreement with the help of FJSD services, they will help you formalize your agreement. You can take a draft agreement to a lawyer to get legal advice before you sign it. With FJSD’s help, you may be able to obtain or change a written agreement or court order in Provincial Court without even having to attend court. If you are going to Supreme Court, they can give you information on how to proceed there. But be aware that Family Justice Counsellors do not provide legal advice or assist with property, debt or pension division matters.

Parenting after Separation Courses
FJSD also offers free three-hour Parenting After Separation (PAS) information sessions to parents and other family members, like grandparents or guardians, who are dealing with issues involving parenting arrangements, guardianship, contact, and support.

  • In-person information sessions are available in many BC communities.
  • An on-line version of Parenting After Separation is available in English, Punjabi or Mandarin on the FamiliesChange website.

Mandatory Services
The services just described are all voluntary. However, FJSD also provides some services required by the Provincial Family Court rules.

  • In most Provincial Court locations, people involved in a Family Law Act matter must attend Parenting After Separation.
  • In several locations in the province, a meeting with a Family Justice Counsellor is required before a court appearance can be scheduled for most Provincial Court family law applications.

Report Service
Once families are involved in the court process, FJSD provides a Family Justice Report Service. A specialized team of Family Justice Counsellors interviews parents, children and others, and writes either Full Reports or Views of the Child Reports when ordered by a Provincial or Supreme Court judge under s. 211 of the Family Law Act. These reports are intended to help a judge to make decisions about parenting arrangements by providing impartial observations.

Through its dedicated Family Justice Counsellors, Child Support Officers, interviewers and other staff, the FJSD provides invaluable help to separating and divorcing families in BC. Their mediation and report-writing services help many, many families resolve disputes themselves, inexpensively and without unnecessary delay, instead of turning these important decisions over to a judge. However, when people cannot settle some or all of their issues, the Provincial Court provides both judge-led conferences and hearings based on evidence to determine family law issues.

1. All Family Justice Counsellors are certified as Family Relations Mediators with Family Mediation Canada and maintain that status by completing at least 20 hours of continuing family mediation education every year.
2. All Family Justice Counsellors are accredited family mediators appointed under BC’s Family Law Act.