COVID-19 and the stressful situations it has caused have hugely increased the number of couples seeking separations and divorces. It is no surprise that trapping couples in shaky relationships in lockdown together and adding financial insecurity to the mix would result in a spike in divorces and separations. Unfortunately, the pandemic has not only increased the number people seeking divorces, but it has also made the family court system slower, less accessible and more complicated.
At the onset of the pandemic, the courts were slow to embrace telephone and video conferences as a means to keep the courts running. Instead, they virtually shut down during the first few months of the pandemic. By July, teleconferences and digital files had become the norm as the courts began to operate at a sluggish albeit ever increasing pace.
Presently, almost every court in Ontario remains closed to in person adjudication. The Ministry of the Attorney General only plans to have all of Ontario’s courts operating through either in person or remote electronic means as of November 1st, 2020. It is unclear when courts will truly be operating at their pre-COVID capacity.
The immediate result of COVID-19 on the family court system appears to be a massive and growing backlog of family law cases, particularly divorces and separations. Nonetheless, most courts are still restricting access to those cases that were in the system before the shutdowns, “urgent” cases, and cases that require minimal court involvement.
With few exceptions, divorces and separations do not require urgent resolution. Although some issues that would normally be resolved during a divorce proceeding might be urgent, such as the need to determine temporary custody arrangements, this does not give the rest of the proceeding a free pass to the courthouse. The urgent issue can be resolved separately from the rest of the proceeding and the divorcing couple can be left waiting indefinitely.
Long story short, COVID-19 is a significant barrier to resolving most divorces and separations through the courts. Teleconferences continue to be the norm, and the total easing of restrictions is not yet on the horizon. Courts cannot be reliably looked to for fast and efficient resolution of family law matters.
What Can You Do To Speed Up The Process?
Those that wait to begin making progress towards resolving their family law matter during more normal times may find themselves waiting in an enormous line behind those who took early steps to resolve their issues. Even in those cases whose subject matter is urgent, the litigants will likely need to show the courts that they have tried to resolve their issues outside of court and have tried and failed to arrange a suitable case conference date.
The courts are encouraging potential litigants to resolve as many problems outside of the court room as possible. This is intended to both reduce the caseload of the courts as well as having parties and their lawyers whittle conflicts down to those issues that truly cannot be resolved without judicial interference.
Whether your case may be considered urgent or not, reducing the number of issues with your lawyer through negotiation is more important than ever. As the courts begin to hear more non urgent cases it appears that they will only begin to hear those new cases that have few sticky issues and that have exhausted alternatives to court proceedings.
How Lawyers Can Help You
Simply put, the best thing you can do to prevent unnecessary delay is to get a head start on conflict reduction and make your case appealing to the courts. Lawyers are the best resource to help you accomplish this. Lawyers act not only as negotiators and guides through these constantly changing times, they also keep you focused on solving the problems that are within your power to solve.
While courts are slow to meet the needs of Canadians seeking a divorce, lawyers have adapted to the pandemic by fully embracing electronic means of communication with their clients, other parties, and the courts. Lawyers are ready to help you to address as many problems as possible while avoiding further unnecessary delay. For some, the increased impetus to resolve issues out of court may prove to be a blessing in disguise.