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Navigating Family Law in the Greater Toronto Area Courts in the COVID-19 Era

6 minute read

It has been just over two months since the Superior Court of Justice released its first Covid-19 related Notice to the Profession, which suspended all its regular operations until further notice. Clients with active Court proceedings were advised that their matter would be indefinitely postponed until at least June when new Return to Operations Scheduling Courts would be established. Recognizing the Court’s fundamental role in our constitutional democracy, the Court dedicated its limited operating capacity to urgent matters only, such as cases dealing with the safety of a child or dire financial issues.  With this new threshold determination, the Courts set up triage judges to determine the urgency (or not) of matters prior to the case being referred to another judge to determine the matter on its merits.

A closure of this magnitude was unprecedented, even for the most experienced lawyers. However, the legal services industry quickly adapted to this new change and began to innovate on the best ways to continue providing legal services to their clients through the use of innovative technologies.

On May 13, 2020, the Superior Court of Justice released its latest Notice to the Profession for the Toronto region. It was the message that many lawyers had been waiting for since limited operations began: the Court was adapting to the “new normal” and was in the process of expanding their limited operations beyond matters deemed urgent. In addition to adding services, this Notice to the Profession specified detailed procedural steps that lawyers and litigants alike will need to follow, including procedure on electronic filings, booking Case and Settlement Conferences, as well as virtual hearings by teleconference or video conference.

       1. The Court has expanded its services.

In an ongoing effort to facilitate timely access to justice, the Superior Court in the Toronto region has expanded its resources to allow for non-urgent cases to advance in limited ways.  The Superior Court of Justice in Toronto is resuming the following services:

  • Issuing of new Family Law Applications, including Divorce Applications: since the Court’s filing office remains closed for in-person attendances, electronic issuing of Applications and filing of other Court documents is now permitted.
  • Case Conferences are now being heard virtually: limited to one or two issues only, with a time limit of no more than one hour.
  • Settlement Conferences are now being heard virtually: for all outstanding issues, with a time limit of no more than 1.5 hours, provided all documents necessary to resolve the issues have been produced.
  • Certain Motions are now being heard virtually: while the Courts will continue to hear urgent motions, Hague Applications and Children’s Aid Society appeals, they will also hear non-urgent motions if a Conference judge schedules the motion after the issue has been Conferenced.
  • Over-the-Counter (14B) Motions and Motions to Change: on consent of all parties only.

Until May 25, 2020, priority dates will be given to Case and Settlement Conferences that were previously scheduled and later adjourned as a result of Covid-19.  After May 25, 2020, scheduling of Case and Settlement Conferences will be open to any matter in the Toronto region in which an Application has already been issued.  It is important to note that Trial Management Conferences will not be scheduled at this time in the Toronto region since the Court is not yet setting return dates for trials until further notice.  Moreover, the Court’s most recent regional Notice for Toronto hints that the Court hopes to eventually add Motions to Change not on consent and non-urgent procedural motions to this list of expanded services.

Whether it is by way of finally issuing your Family Law Application, attending a long-anticipated Conference or moving for urgent relief on a motion, the Family Law Group at Lerners is well-equipped to assist.  Of course, if your preference is to resolve your family law matter outside of Court, the experienced Family Law team at Lerners has always been ready, willing, and able to help navigate you towards resolution, and has ample experience in alternative dispute resolutions, such as mediation and arbitrations, being done virtually.

If your matter is not located in the Toronto region or if you require more information about a different level of Court you can find region-specific Notices on the Superior Court of Justice website or you can contact one of the lawyers in our Family Law Group.

      2. The legal community is embracing technology.

Working from home and following the government’s directives on social distancing necessitates the use of technology.

Technological innovation has grown rapidly. During our first week working from home, calls were occasionally being dropped and participants were prevented from dialing-in if the server was too busy. In addition, there was a need to factor potential delays for couriers and other in-person services.

Fast forward two months: The Family Law Group at Lerners is video conferencing with clients, opposing counsel and judges from Courts across the Province, including the Court of Appeal. We are facilitating the execution of domestic contracts, using special software that tracks and time stamps the digital signature.  We are also finding ways to virtually commission certain Court documents such as affidavits and financial statements, when necessary, circumventing the need for in-person meetings.

Most recently, our law firm is finding newer ways to beat the “lag” often caused by technological hiccups. Instant messaging systems for short questions or administrative instructions have replaced many emails and phone calls, and internal clouds have facilitated the distribution of larger documents.

According to the latest Notice to the Profession, the Superior Court (Toronto) will also be embracing new technology to carry out its services. For example, lawyers are asked to use the Calendly website to schedule Conferences; pleadings and other Court filings can now be done by way of email (as opposed to filing hard copies) and Courts have developed a comprehensive nomenclature for the saving of documents to be filed; and of course in-person hearings have been replaced by teleconference and video conferencing software.

At Lerners, we recognize that these times are particularly difficult and stressful for family law clients, as increasing concerns about health and employment stability translate into complex issues relating to custody, access and support.  Our firm has a dedicated team focused on sourcing the most innovative technologies to adapt to the changing legal landscape and provide the most seamless provision of legal services to all of our clients in the Covid-19 era.  After the release of the May 13, 2020 Notice to the Profession, Lerners is delighted to see that in just two (very long) months, the Superior Court has also embraced technology and is committed to continuously find ways to best serve the needs of the public.

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