Panel of Ontario Lawyers Say Patchwork of Rules on Virtual Divorce Hearings Hurts Clients

Russell Alexander says that provincial courts in the province are enforcing wildly different policies on whether divorce hearings can be held virtually, causing problems with lawyers and their clients.

Alexander, who is leading a panel of family lawyers who have been arguing against a recent decision by the head of Ontario courts to return to in-person hearings due to lower coronavirus case numbers, said he appreciated that some judges have held off on implementing the policy until the fall, allowing routine hearings and other pre-trial meetings to be held using videoconferencing technology.

But with judges making their own decisions on virtual vs in-person, Alexander says that has caused problems of its own throughout the field, as lawyers must advise some clients that they’ll go to court, while others can have so-called “Zoom divorces” online.

“While I’m glad that we can continue using videoconferencing in some jurisdictions, it’s fundamentally unfair to allow it for some couples and not others based on a patchwork of local decisions,” said Alexander. “We used this technology over the last two years and found that it’s less expensive and less stressful for clients. There’s no reason why we can’t continue.”

The panel of lawyers, which formed in April and has been meeting to work on the problems lawyers are facing with the new in-person setup, started a petition that has received over 1,100 family lawyer signatures thus far in an attempt to persuade judges to allow virtual hearings to continue. They met last Friday on Zoom to consider the next steps after holding a press conference in May to discuss the need to return to virtual hearings.

In the coming weeks, the panel will hold a live “town hall” online event for both legal professionals and members of the public where family lawyers throughout the province will share their frustration over the inability to give proper advice to clients because of the court’s
inconsistencies and access to justice issues. Further details about the live webinar will be released shortly.

As courtrooms shut down amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Ontario courts shifted online on an emergency basis, but Alexander said lawyers and clients soon found several advantages. Couples no longer had to pay for travel, childcare, parking, and time off work, while they avoided traffic, court security, interpersonal conflicts and time spent waiting around courthouse hallways. That allowed lawyers to reduce legal fees and gave rural clients more options when hiring an attorney.

“Virtual hearings are less expensive, faster and less stressful for everyone involved,” added Alexander. “Ontario courts that are requiring lawyers to return to the courthouse for every case are taking a huge step backward and making the legal system less accessible.”