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Lucas Kott looks over legal bills as his two children play in the living room at his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, March 24, 2011. Lucas Kott, 49, is heavily in debt after fighting over custody of his two children with his ex-wife. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Lucas Kott looks over legal bills as his two children play in the living room at his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, March 24, 2011. Lucas Kott, 49, is heavily in debt after fighting over custody of his two children with his ex-wife. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Why Canada needs a split from its messy divorce laws Add to ...



Another study found that 40 per cent of cases handled at the family centres settled all conflicts; among the remaining 60 per cent with outstanding issues, half of them skipped court and eventually worked it out on their own. But court filings tell only part of the story, Dr. Parkinson says. The centres also assist spouses who might have otherwise given up because the cost of private mediation or legal remedies was too expensive. Based on the idea that a divorce is a "reorganization" of the family, and not an end to it, parents may also return for free sessions up to two years later to resolve new issues.

Lawyers such as Michael Cochrane would go one step further, creating a labour-relations-style tribunal, completely separate from the courts, that would provide a range of counselling services and where specialized arbitrators would make binding decisions. "As long as lawyers and judges run the show, it will stay the same as it is now."

And perhaps, Toronto lawyer Judith Huddart says, people might come to their senses sooner if they were better educated about the costs and risks of divorce - long before their first court appearance. A comprehensive and mandatory education program would expose them to other options, such as collaborative law, in which lawyers work together on a settlement. And it would spell out what a hostile divorce does to their kids, as well as their bank accounts.

That cautionary lesson might have spared Tania Thompson long days in court and the $50,000 she paid in legal fees, most of it borrowed from her father. Now a single mom with two young children in Mississauga, she wishes that she and her ex-husband had been ordered into mediation before a judge was even an option. "The lawyers all of a sudden make it more of a tense situation." And a courtroom, she says, is a cold place to reorganize your family for the future.

Erin Anderssen is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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