Benchers form Family Law Task Force

In January 2007 the Benchers struck the Family Law Task Force, and charged it with the responsibility to consider whether an amendment to the Professional Conduct Handbook and/or a code of conduct for family law lawyers is needed, and to report back to the Benchers with its findings.

Last year the Benchers’ Access to Justice, Ethics, and Independence and Self-governance Committees considered the various views and recommendations expressed in the Report of the Family Justice Reform Working Group on potential negative impacts on families and children of the traditional adversarial approach to matrimonial litigation. In particular, the Committees examined Recommendation 36 of that report:

The Law Society should recognize the changing roles and duties of family law lawyers and develop a Code of Practice for Family Lawyers to give guidance in the balancing of a lawyer’s partisan role with the potential harm it may cause to other family members, especially children.

The Committees considered Recommendation 36 and a related provincial discussion paper, A Code of Practice for Family Lawyers , and referred the issues arising to the December Benchers’ meeting for discussion. An informal Benchers working group, comprising Kathryn Berge, QC, Carol Hickman, Rob Punnett, Richard Stewart and Gordon Turriff, QC, was then asked to determine whether the issues ­warranted action and to report back at the first Benchers meeting of 2007.

The informal Benchers working group first received the assurance of a senior ­government representative that the provincial government does not intend to impose a family law code of conduct on BC’s legal profession, but rather is prepared to provide information and assistance to whichever group takes up the challenge of addressing the issues underlying Recommendation 36.

Next, the working group considered various discipline and family law statistics to gauge the substance of the concerns expressed regarding partisan tendencies in family litigation practice, and to assess the scale of the family law issues involved. Highlights of those statistics include:

  • there are 168,000 single-parent families (26 per cent) in BC;
  • 56 per cent of divorcing couples have children at home;
  • BC’s divorce rate is 38 per cent (about 10,000 per year);
  • almost one third of BC Supreme Court filings arise from family law matters;
  • 38 per cent of founded family law complaints to the Law Society are made by the opposing party, versus 22 per cent in all practice areas.

As well, the informal Benchers working group took note of the provincial government’s reference to a substantial body of research indicating the manner in which parental conflict is handled during marriage dissolution has a profound impact on children’s psychological and social welfare.

Accepting the informal working group’s advice that the provincial government had identified a matter of public interest both important and relevant to the Law Society mandate, the Benchers struck the Family Law Task Force for the following purpose:

1. To determine:

a. whether an amendment to the Professional Conduct Handbook is necessary, and/or

b. whether a code of conduct (or guidelines) for family lawyers is necessary, whether such a code or guidelines should be mandatory or voluntary, and who should be responsible for developing the code or guidelines, and

2. To report back to the Benchers with findings, for the purpose of ­determining whether further action is required.

The 11-member Family Justice Reform Working Group was established by the Justice Review Task Force in 2003 to propose fundamental and cost-effective change to BC’s family justice system. The Justice Review Task Force was established on the initiative of the Law Society of BC in March 2002 to identify a wide range of potential reform initiatives that could make BC’s justice system more responsive, accessible and efficient. Its members include the Chief Justice of the BC Supreme Court, the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court and representatives of the Law Society, the Canadian Bar Association (BC Branch) and the Ministry of the Attorney General.