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A bumpy start for a new style of family court

Justice Joseph Bovard, one of the judges instrumental of in getting the new integrated domestic violence court on Jarvis St., photographed at his courtroom.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

It was heralded as an innovative first for the Canadian justice system – a pilot project in Ontario merging family court and criminal domestic violence cases with a one-judge, one-courtroom approach.

But at its highly anticipated launch on June 10, the Integrated Domestic Violence Court heard only one case, then was promptly forced to cancel its next two sessions for lack of cases. Seemingly, lawyers and their litigants were apprehensive about taking a chance on this new judicial body.

Finally, after much delay, the IDV court held its next two sessions on July 22 and 29 with Justice Joseph Bovard presiding. Despite its bumpy start, the court is slowly growing and Judge Bovard said he remains sure of its ability to succeed.

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"We only sat once before, and we had to cancel the court the other times because there were no available cases. But we expected it to start slow," he said. "We haven't been deluged with cases, because it is such a novel concept to Canada.

"It will take some education before people get up to speed," he said. "There is definitely some confusion about how the court is going to run, but we will get there."

The IDV court has ambitious plans to combine cases from two of the city's busiest courthouses: the criminal court of Old City Hall and the family court housed at 311 Jarvis Street. The pilot project was modelled after the successful IDV courts in the U.S., which have been running for a decade.

The court will help reduce wasted time and resources dealing with such conflicts as differing bail conditions. Say criminal court imposes a restraining order while a family court allows supervised visits; the individual would not have to seek changes at one courthouse to deal with the requirements of another.

Although the cases will be treated as separate and distinct, the one-stop shop method will have one judge hearing both cases in succession. The IDV court has also attracted plenty of attention from other jurisdictions, and if successful would likely serve as the model for implementing similar systems across Ontario and potentially even across Canada.

Lauren Israel, a family lawyer in Toronto, said she has been discussing the possibility of going to the IDV court with her clients – many of whom expressed interest, but none have been eligible so far under the court's strict requirements.

The IDV court will only hear criminal cases that fall under Old City Hall's jurisdiction, while the family cases are restricted to custody, access, child and spousal support and restraining orders. As Ms. Israel's practice is based in North York, most of her clients cannot submit a request to be heard at IDV court, even though many have expressed interest.

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She said the geographical and logistical barriers might be part of the reason the court has had a slow start.

"Of course, there is some reluctance and hesitation when it's something new," she said, but added that she sees the potential benefits of the "one court" method for her clients.

"It's a holistic treatment of both the criminal and family cases," she said. "Hopefully, because there is one judge who will hear both cases, that should reduce the number of court appearances."

Unlike the New York model where a judge can order the case to be heard at the integrated domestic violence court, the organizers of the Canadian version decided – in a typically Canadian manner – that consent should be required from all parties.

While these restrictions are in place for now, Justice Geraldine Waldman said the IDV court is one of the many reforms to Ontario's family law courts, launched by the Ministry of the Attorney General in 2008, with the intention of making them more efficient.

She was one of the initial thinkers behind this pilot project. With over 35 years of experience as a family lawyer, she has seen first-hand some of the problems in co-ordinating domestic violence court cases with family cases.

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"I've seen it so many times, when a criminal court judge will set a bail condition that will tie the hands of the family court, when it comes to access and custody issues," she said. "We want to stop setting contradictory bail conditions that frustrate not only the litigants but also the courts. It's all about better communication."

Judge Bovard added that a criminal judge such as himself will be able to understand the context of the underlying stressors when hearing the allegations in the domestic violence cases.

The IDV court also has a dedicated Crown counsel, a community resource worker – who is responsible for connecting families to services such as addiction and anger management – and an officer at the 311 Jarvis court who provides victim and witness protection.

"At the end of the day, we're dealing with families," Judge Waldman said. "We want to make this easier for them."

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