The Legal Innovation Zone’s Family Reform Community Collaboration

Ryerson’s Legal Innovation Zone launched a 4-month Community Collaboration initiative to reform family dispute resolution in Ontario and benefit parents and children of separating families. Over five sessions, our goal was to create and develop a faster, more efficient, more affordable, and less adversarial approach to resolving family law disputes out of court. Nearly 200 community members came together and helped us several approaches from which workable solutions/prototypes could provide better results for families.

Executive Summary What? We wanted to help families who are ending their relationship find a faster, more affordable and more supportive approach to resolve their issues. This project is about solutions, not reports. It would not be an approach for all families and issues, only for those appropriate.

Why? Many families are in urgent need. At a most difficult time in their lives, they are too often confronted with a process that drains them emotionally and financially. It does not always recognize that even though they are separating, they will likely be interacting with each other for many reasons over the years to come.

How? We decided that an innovative approach was more likely to produce an innovative result. We asked lawyers, mediators, related professionals, community leaders and the public at large to help with this project. Everyone’s contribution was valued. It has been a community collaboration, because these issues matter to the community.

The starting point: Court is important for some families and issues, but not all.   An affordable, timely and more supportive approach would be consistent with the conclusions of many experts, provided it was appropriate to the family and their issues.

The Approach – We set guidelines for the approach:

  1. Must be more supportive, more affordable and faster.
  2. Does not require more money from government or Legal Aid to operationalize.
  3. Will be appropriate for some people, but not all.
  4. Operates before the court process is initiated, and outside of it.
  5. Does not require legislative or regulatory changes.

A series of 5 public sessions, countless discussions and much work by many people over 4 months resulted in the building blocks of a better approach, several key design characteristics, a number of early-stage example prototypes, and several groups already developing their own solutions.

Need and Opportunity: The unmet need is substantial, but not all are without resources. While many require the assistance of government and Legal Aid, many others have some money to spend.   We estimated a potential annual market of $40 to $200 million that is not being met by lawyers or other professionals today.

Building the Better Approach The participants identified several building blocks of a better approach, and key design characteristics those approaches should reflect.

The building blocks of a better approach are:

  1. Screening/Safety: Appropriate people only – Exclude those who should not be served.
  2. Education: What do people need to know, when do they need to know it, and how do they find out?
  3. Triage: Identify issues, and match issues with the appropriate means to deal with them.
  4. Resolution: When the parties are ready, and only voluntarily, move to resolve the issues.

How they work together, in what order or combination, and with what technology, will depend on the design of the solution and the people and issues it is to serve.

Several key characteristics of a better approach are:

  1. Consumers want solutions: Families are interested in the result and finality, and less interested in the journey. The initiatives that are developed may address one or more of the building blocks, but the closer they can come to an answer, the better they will be received.
  2. Certainty: Consumers want to know what they are getting, and how much it will cost. One of the barriers to consumers accessing the existing court process is uncertainty over what they will get for their money. Expressing cost in hourly rates or steps, when the consumer has no idea how many hours or what the step will achieve and how important it is, is frustrating.
  3. User Friendly: Consumers want an approach they can understand. The difference between the success and failure of many products and services today is often the user experience.
  4. Must Work for Consumers, Not Just Providers: The overriding question is how will the consumer react? Design it from the consumer’s perspective.
  5. Include Technology: Whether the technology is in everyday use (skype or web conference), or on the cutting edge (logic systems or AI), it will have a profound effect on the success of the approach.
  6. Design the approach for the people you wish to serve: Do not design it for everyone. This will enable you to control price, while ensuring a high quality approach that is appropriate.

Where do we go from here? We have several groups actively pursuing their own solutions. We will provide support for them, and advise others of the opportunity to serve many in an innovative way that can be professionally (and financially) fulfilling.

Thank you to those who came together to help find a better approach for families. Thanks to our special advisor, Dr. Barbara Landau, for her tireless advocacy and work, with support from the facilitators Nicole Aylwin, Dr. Barbara Benoliel, Dr. Brett Degoldi, Cecil Fennel, Judith Huddart, Daryl Landau and Mary-Anne Popescu. Thanks also to Dr. Steve Gedeon, who designed and delivered session 4. Special thanks to Josh Morrison, a newly-called lawyer, for his dedicated work as the Project Coordinator. Finally, many thanks to the almost 200 people who gave up their time and contributed their best in our sessions.

There is a better way for many, and you brought us closer to achieving it.

Chris Bentley, Executive Director, Legal Innovation Zone

Hersh Perlis, Director, Legal Innovation Zone