Buzz, LIZ and Family Law

There is nothing like having a former Attorney General to give a bit of a buzz to a new university law department. And Chris Bentley has certainly done that for new kid on the Toronto educational block, Ryerson. He is managing director of its LIZ, Legal Innovation Zone. Ryerson rocked the stately world of Ontario legal training with its largely online Law Practice Program about which its program director, Gina Alexandris wrote earlier. Now, manifesting its characteristic hutzpah, LIZ has established nothing less than a Global Family Justice Initiative launched at a Family Law Innovation Conference last week.

The initiative has a number of elements, the two most interesting being an attempt to establish a “Family Justice Achievement Measure’. The goal is clear: ‘By June 3, 2019, the access to justice crisis in family law is substantially solved.  At least 80% of families using the family justice system in Ontario will have a faster, simpler, and more affordable alternative available to them to resolve their separation issues.’ Now, this raises an issue of style which may alienate some old-timers in the family field. As the LIZ puts the question: ‘Why June 3, 2019? Why not? It is also 1 year from the Family Law Innovation Conference where those advancing A2J around the world will be sharing their initiatives.  Earlier is better.’ And, as the LiZ says, ‘a date brings urgency and accountability’.

Personally, I rather like this introduction of this politically-based approach to the somewhat intractable problem of accessible family law provision. The date for success is really a side issue. The core of this element of the LIZ’s proposal is that ‘There do not appear to be agreed measures of success. Proposed solutions have been advanced without much evidence that they will advance A2J, solve all or part of the crisis, or would do so cost effectively. Action: Establish measures of success.  Start with: faster, simpler and more affordable.  Build from there.’ This chimes with the debate on the establishment of similar measures of success for online small claims and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service court modernisation programme. 

Another core element of the programme is the establishment of a Family Assist Portal which will be ‘a personalized, user-friendly, interactive online portal where families can obtain what they need to facilitate faster, simpler and more affordable resolution of their issues.’ This takes the LIZ into an interesting field – that of the legal portal, a site that brings together information, referral and perhaps additionally some measure of screening or intake to services. There are a number of examples of various types of portal around the world – many from the United States where the Legal Services Corporation is proceeding with its model statewide portal project for Alaska and Hawaii.  

British Columbia’s Sherry MacLennan spoke at the conference about MyLawBC’s family coverage. She talked of plans to upgrade MyLawBC – which already incorporates a ‘dialogue tool’ that facilitates negotiation of a separation agreement. Also proposed is a major upgrade to the Legal Services Society’s family law website. This attracts considerable numbers – more than 750,000 annually and their are plans ‘to expand the scope of our site, utilise emotional and inclusive design, increase video and podcasts, incorporate guided pathways and reimagine self-help … we are exploring the role of artificial intelligence and conversational interfaces for the future.’

So, all in all, it looks like Canada may be the place to watch for progress in the use of technology to assist in family law cases. Oh, and block in the date – June 3 2019 – because the least the LIZ can do for global family law is some spadework on measurement of success. And that is one of the emerging frontiers in the field. And, indeed, another is how legal portals might work – for which we need as many comparative models as possible. 

Additionally, there is a parochial – or, more literally, provincial – issue. For decades, the Toronto’s leading institution bridging the academic and legal service delivery was Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Its Professor Fred Zemans established the Province’s law centre in 1971, now Parkdale Community Legal Services. His work, and that of others, led Osgoode Hall to a leading global role in thinking about the practical issues arising from legal policy.  That helped bolster the Province’s commitment to a successful network of community legal clinics – of which it has the world’s best example. No accident. Has technology given Ryerson a chance to usurp the Crown? In the modern world, can the politician- MD take the leadership role from the practitioner-academic? Or can a new generation at Osgoode fight back? We will see.

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