The Ryerson Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ) Family Law Portal
The Family Law Portal Team at Ryerson is very aware of recent efforts to improve the experience of family law clients, particularly those considering a court process. Both the enhanced CLEO Guided Pathways and the Family Law Limited Scope Services Project are welcome initiatives.
Several years ago, Chris Bentley, the Director of Ryerson’s LIZ embarked on a creative project. Several members of FDRIO, Collaborative Family Law Toronto, ADRIO and OAFM were invited to participate. We reached out to a wide range of multi-disciplinary family professionals and clients, as well as Ryerson faculty and students, inviting ideas for systemic changes to improve the experience of separating clients and their children. Staff from the Ministry of the Attorney General, Legal Aid Ontario, CLEO, family law lawyers, financial professionals, metal health professionals, and intimate partner experts were included – in all over 200 people shared their ideas over a 5-session brainstorming- process.
The conclusion from this consultation was that separating couples needed a cost-effective tool that they could work on individually, at their own pace, that provided some screening for safety and mental health concerns, with helpful hints as to how to access supportive professionals. Next, clients needed information as to the types of legal decisions they needed to make, and depending on their level of conflict, helpful hints about process options for approaching discussions with their partner, while minimizing conflict for their children. Legal advice was important to ensure agreements that were fair and would endure, with clients seeking services that were affordable, timely and helpful in resolving their legal issues.
The result was the creation of the LIZ Family Law Portal– a tool that would provide a roadmap for separating couples, free of charge, from which they could make decisions as to the choice of process – both outside court (e.g. negotiation, mediation, collaborative law or arbitration) or in court (including court based services), and the type of professionals – legal, financial, or mental health – depending on each person’s needs and readiness.
We invited many professionals and users to try the portal. We received feedback from the family law bar as well as users and updated the portal to take into account the comments we received.
Q: What is the Family Law Portal and who is it designed to help?
A: The Family Law Portal is a free online questionnaire for families facing separation and divorce.
It is designed to assist individuals who have recently separated or are considering a separation, to understand the specific issues they are likely to face – legal as well as emotional and financial challenges. The portal provides individuals with legal information about their rights and obligations to each other and their children, not legal advice. It is intended as an important first step in providing meaningful access to justice for families, ideally in a non-adversarial process. The portal is confidential.
The portal is organized into several topic areas that are relevant to the specific user. First, the user is screened in a background section for safety and significant issues that may underlie the separation, such as mental health, addiction or safety concerns. Some helpful hints are provided for accessing community resources as needed. According to the information given in the background section, users are then directed to other relevant sections of the portal based on their family situation. The sections include parenting, income, child support, property, and spousal support.
The user’s responses are summarized in a confidential report after each section, that the individual can chose to share with their lawyer or other professionals who are assisting.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the process and the partnership with AI Partners.
A: All professionals on the team had experience working with separating families, but no experience working to develop an online resource.
We started by considering what families needed to know when they were separating. The goal was to provide this information in plain language within a framework they could navigate for themselves. We divided up the various areas of information, such as parenting, support, and property and worked on smaller teams, then we reviewed each other’s work. Chris Bentley kept us focused – we needed to keep our information concise and user-friendly. Once we were satisfied with the overall structure and information, we began the task of looking at how our resources interacted in an online format for the technical folks. This was a new experience for most of us and challenged us to consider how each piece of information might connect with another piece, depending on the individual needs of the user. We were also asked to test out early versions of the technology to check functionality as well as the layout of information. While we did not have to involve ourselves with the actual technology (thank heavens!) it certainly gave us a greater appreciation of how this type of online resource is built.
Q: How could the portal be helpful to clients and their lawyers or other professionals?
A: The portal can actually assist lawyers and other professionals with preparation and managing client expectations.
Before a client meets with a lawyer, the person setting up the appointment might suggest the client prepare for the meeting by working through the portal. Not only will the client have a greater appreciation of some of the legal issues to be discussed, they will also receive a print-out of their portal information, including what documents they need to collect to start the disclosure process. A client’s work through the portal is designed to help them make the most efficient use of their lawyer’s time. As well, the portal provides clients with an understanding of process choices to discuss with their lawyer.
An important consideration for clients is cost. It is often a reason that clients cannot continue the legal or other professional support that would benefit them. By encouraging clients to do some preparation – learning about their responsibilities and rights – and gathering the necessary documents, many more separating clients can access professional assistance that effectively addresses their priorities.
Q: What makes the Family Law Portal different from other online legal resources?
A: The Family Law Portal does not assume the user is in a court process.
It is not designed to provide information on steps in a court proceeding, although it is helpful preparation for those who do go to court. It provides the user with basic information about how family law may impact them and what process options they have to choose from to resolve the breakdown of their relationship. The portal encourages the user to consider their partner’s response on issues when assessing potential areas of agreement or disagreement. The user is reminded about the impact of emotions in making decisions, particularly just after a separation. Each area of the portal also contains user-friendly hints, for example, it alerts parents about potential safety issues or reminds them how separation may impact their children. The portal is designed to help couples recognize that separation is not just about legal issues, it is also about parenting, communication, emotional and financial issues.
The LIZ Family Law Team: Chris Bentley, Hersh Perlis, Barbara Landau, Judith Huddart, Neil Maisel, Tom Dart, Sina Hariri, Daniella Wald, Jason Muloongo, and Yasemin Diamante.