Law project examines pandemic’s impact on family justice

COVID-19 has dramatically disrupted how courts conduct business – and now a new Western University-led research project will study the pandemic’s profound effect on people involved with Ontario’s family justice system.

“The pandemic has forced courts and professionals to change their practices,” said Western Law professor Claire Houston, the project’s principal investigator. “It’s a unique opportunity to gather feedback and identify any innovations to improve access to justice.”

Western Law professor Claire Houston

Western Law professor Claire Houston. Photo by Geoff Robins, Special to Western Communications

“The suspension of family court operations that began in March 2020 reduced access to justice in a system already plagued by delay and inaccessibility,” said Houston, whose research specialties are children’s participation in the justice system, high-conflict separation and intimate partner violence.

She said the reduction in court services likely has had a disproportionate impact on people who are self-represented, have experienced violence from intimate partners, are children of separating parents or are families involved with child welfare agencies.

This project aims to study how the dramatic reduction in access affected the family justice system and litigants’ lives.

It will study the pandemic’s impact over time: from the closing of courthouses and tight restrictions that brought proceedings almost to a standstill in mid-March; the expanded use of technology during the spring; the gradual reopening of the courts in the summer; and to the expected pathway to a “new normal” over the course of 2020-21.

“By identifying how courts and family justice professionals responded to the pandemic we hope to offer recommendations for how any innovations may be modified or adopted for continued use,” Houston said.

Some of those innovations have included virtual hearings and electronic filing of materials.

These changes may bring their own challenges and inequities, Houston noted: not all litigants have access to the internet and many lack the skills required to submit necessary documents.

The research project has received funding from the Ontario chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and the Law Foundation of Ontario.

Houston will work on this research project with co-investigators, professor Rachel Birnbaum of King’s University College at Western, and professor Nicholas Bala of Queen’s University.

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