You probably won’t be too excited about this. But I am. As a family law lawyer, I have waited for a merger of our two present family law courts into one (hence the title “Unified Family Court” or “UFC”). The first and only UFC was set up in Hamilton in 1977. Expansion was very slow and we in Waterloo Region were left behind. Before the recent additions, there were 17 UFCs in Ontario. Effective May 13, 2019, the Region of Waterloo joined along with another 7 centres to a further expansion of the UFC.
There remain several areas of Ontario, notably Toronto, that are still without a UFC. I understand that the plan is to add all other localities to the UFC system by 2025.
What does a UFC mean for Waterloo? Under the old system, we had two similar but separate courts with separate judges. Part of this is due to the way in which constitutional powers are divided and our court system was set up. The “senior” of the two courts, the Superior Court of Justice dealt with divorce, parenting (including custody and access), child support, spousal support and property division. Some of these could be dealt with by the “junior” of the two courts, the Ontario Court of Justice. The Ontario Court of Justice dealt with parenting (including custody and access), child support, spousal support, children’s aid matters as well as various other issues including adoption, change of name and enforcement of support orders. The Superior Court would also serve as an appellate court for certain decisions of the Ontario Court of Justice.
The new UFC is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice. We have four new judges, all with an extensive family law background, who will be able to deal with all family law matters. The differing practices between the two courts will no longer be an issue for us let alone scheduling our cases between the two. Appellate procedure will change as well.
Those who find themselves in our family court system will, we hope, find the procedures somewhat more efficient and specialized. UFCs have been quite successful in other jurisdictions where they have been tried.
I do still wish that there were immediate efforts to reduce the enormous amount of paperwork that we go through in family law court proceedings and bring comprehensive digital technology into the way that we file our court documentation. However, I’ll save my court wish list for another day.
Sometimes cases require reference to precedent as set out in prior court decisions. Under the old two- tier system, decisions of the Superior Court took precedence and could be binding over decisions of the Ontario Court of Justice. Under the new system, all cases are at one level, the Superior Court. This may be important if your case involves argument of case law.
One thing that I will miss is the case management that we have had recently in the old Ontario Court of Justice. You would usually make several appearances before the same judge especially at the early stages of the proceeding. You would always have a new court date to return. They haven’t yet instituted this fully in the Superior Court and cases can languish.