Settlement conferences help resolve Children’s Aid cases faster
Posted on: Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Sarnia-Chatham, June 1 - An increasing number of residents are resolving their Children's Aid Society legal matters faster and more effectively through Legal Aid Ontario's (LAO's) settlement conference service.
Out of the courtroom
These conferences are meetings, led by a lawyer or social worker, held around a table rather than in a courtroom. They allow everyone involved in a legal dispute to work together toward a resolution and avoid court proceedings.
Madam Justice Anne McFadyen, who presides in Sarnia-Chatham's Ontario Court of Justice family court, is a proponent. "Settlement conferences are an important way for families involved with Children's Aid to resolve issues more effectively, she says. "At a time when we need to deploy limited resources more effectively, they can help us avoid the stress and expense of a trial."
"At a time when we need to deploy limited resources more effectively, [settlement conferences] can help us avoid the stress and expense of a trial."
This process is particularly effective in helping families fine-tune schedules for accessing their children and define next steps to meet court-required goals.
Early resolutions avoid expensive litigation
As Wenda Lowrie, in-house legal counsel with the Sarnia-Lambton Children's Aid Society (CAS) points out, "child protection workers often find the adversarial process in court somewhat foreign to them. But at these sessions, everyone feels comfortable in participating. As a result, this program has contributed to early resolution of many cases that might otherwise be stalled in the court system."
"This program has contributed to early resolution of many cases that might otherwise be stalled in the court system."
Mary-Anne Stevens, District Area Director for LAO in Essex, Lambton and Kent District, has retained former area director and lawyer Bob Murray to lead these conferences for the Children's Aid Society since January 2011.
"It was a pilot project initially," she recalls. "But now it's become an ongoing initiative. Bob's ability to bring the parties together allows the parties to craft resolutions that better meet their needs. It is also cost efficient - the litigation process would be expensive for all parties involved."
Working together to build consensus
So far, Murray has led 43 settlement conferences for families with children under Children's Aid Society protection in 2011, plus a further 15 sessions between January and May 2012. "Everyone gets to sit around a table together and express his or her opinion," he says. "We work together to build a consensus that results in the best possible outcome for the children."
Madam Justice McFadyen agrees. "Bob is an invaluable resource for our community," she says. "He has the respect of the bar, the respect of our litigants, and a great relationship with the Aboriginal community in this region. At least 95% of issues that come before Bob are resolved. It would be difficult to resolve many of them without him and the settlement conference service."
Free services from LAO
LAO offers free settlement conference services in family law to eligible clients across the province. It offers these services for CAS matters in an increasing number of jurisdictions.
- In the past year-and-a-half (January 2011 to May 2012), the Sarnia-Chatham's Ontario Court of Justice family court hosted 58 settlement conferences for families with children under the protection of the Sarnia-Lambton Children's Aid Society.
- In that same timeframe, the Essex, Lambton and Kent District (includes Windsor, Sarnia and Chatham) hosted an additional 202 settlement conferences.
- A settlement conference must take place no later than 80 days after the start of a child protection court case.
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