In December, I blogged about aspiring to be a butterfly rather than a cautious caterpillar in choosing to transform the family justice system. I hinted at a significant strategy on its way, aimed at achieving that transformation.

I am proud to announce that a family justice leadership strategy has been proposed to Access to Justice BC, and Access to Justice BC has accepted the challenge. Details of the strategy are set out in a report from an A2JBC working group charged with coming up with a practical strategy.

This means that A2JBC will lead a multi-sector Transform the Family Justice System (TFJS) Collaborative, but first we need to take the necessary preparatory steps, over the next several months, to make sure the TFJS Collaborative is successful and sustainable. We are very grateful to the Notary Foundation for stepping up to fund this “laying the foundation” phase of the initiative.

The TFJS initiative is rooted in evidence that childhood trauma (Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs) can cause long-lasting negative effects. Parental separation and divorce, family dysfunction, and domestic violence are all Adverse Childhood Experiences that may cause families to come into contact with the family justice system. Measures to reduce toxic stress, strengthen resilience and life skills, and support families can make a difference. The family justice system—through its adversarial-based processes and culture, and its siloed focus on legal solutions—unwittingly increases toxic stress for family members and misses opportunities to promote family well-being.

This shift to focusing on achieving family well-being represents a major shift for justice sector reform—away from focusing on access to lawyers and courts, although those will continue to play an important role for families. The right to access an independent, impartial decision-maker will not be compromised, and the court will continue to protect vulnerable family members, to equitably resolve disputes that cannot otherwise be resolved, and to advance the jurisprudence.

For families, justice means being able to live a good life. The rule of law (as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) supports this aspiration, but the justice sector is only one of many sectors in society that are there to support families. Still the family justice sector needs to play its part to do no harm and create opportunities to promote family well-being.

Making this shift of putting families, rather than courts, at the centre leads to a holistic approach that will change the way we do things. When families are experiencing issues that connect them to the family justice system, their legal issues are often secondary to their social, relationship, parenting, and financial issues. So the solutions will more likely be outside the justice sector. Thus, for the TFJS Collaborative to succeed, it needs to be a multi-sector initiative.

Transforming the family justice system is an ambitious goal and achievable only if many organizations, both within and outside the justice sector, work in alignment around common goals, learn from each other, and use common measures to evaluate success in achieving family well-being.

The good news is that we are not starting from scratch. There is much excellent transformative work already underway that promotes family well-being. The TFJS Collaborative will provide a framework that will build on that work and open up new possibilities. For example, courthouses in Victoria and Surrey have recently launched a new approach to family law disputes; it is aimed at de-escalating family conflict for families applying to the Provincial Court. The TFJS Collaborative will provide a way to link this initiative to others that have that same objective and will open up the possibility of mutual reinforcement and collaborative innovation.

I invite anyone working with families that are going through conflict or separation to consider ways to align with this important initiative. I encourage you to review the resources on A2JBC’s A2J Resources page, which show the solid, principle-based thinking that the initiative is built on. Transforming the family justice system will take time. But it will never happen unless we commit ourselves to act now.

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