Increases in Ontario family law cases: An anecdotal account

By Kathryn Hendrikx

Law360 Canada (October 9, 2020, 9:04 AM EDT) --
Kathryn Hendrikx
COVID-19-related separations have been called the tsunami of separations and the avalanche of applicants. A Sept.12 BBC News headline heralded a “ ‘Divorce Boom’ forecast as lockdown sees advice queries rise.”

Have family law lawyers in Ontario seen a significant spike in separations over these past six months during COVID-19? While there are no official statistics relating to increased separations to date, anecdotally, across the province, family law lawyers are seeing an uptake of new clients. Family law professionals are also spending much more time with current retained clients who are feeling the emotional impact of socially isolating with their spouse while being in a separated legal state.

Many spouses live in the matrimonial home in a state of “separate and apart.” This situation is never ideal and families generally work closely with their chosen professional to negotiate an interim agreement, allowing one party to leave the home without prejudice. However, when the COVID-19 lockdown was put in place, conflicted and separated spouses had to remain in their home — together.

This sparked many difficult situations leading to an increase in acrimony within the family unit. Challenges ranged from managing emotions to serious domestic violence. This reality created an increase in calls from clients and acrimony for family law lawyers.  

Family lawyers know that the month of September is a high new client intake month. Many separating couples will wait until the end of the school summer break to make the decision to separate. Part of this decision rests on the fact that the children will be back in school, giving parents more free time to seek counsel and investigate alternative dispute resolution options.

This year we have a notional “double cohort” of new family law intake cases. One group of clients being those who naturally elect to separate in September, and another group where the family is at a breaking point after socially isolating in the home. If family law professionals are not seeing new cases, they are certainly taking much more time managing their current clients’ expectations and providing support.

Family lawyers are also seeing an increase in cases that include both criminal and family law matters. Family law lawyer Nancy Pringle from Sarnia, Ont., says: “I have also noticed an increase in the crossover between criminal law matters creeping into the family law issues.”

Domestic disturbances include stalking, tracking and video recording of parties and children in the home. The increased tension within families has created a breeding ground for domestic violence. Tensions increased in the home as families did not align with decisions about in-person or online education, the wearing of masks, daycare options and the return to work, for example.

In the past any one of these factors would be sufficient to spark a domestic incident. Today we have many of these factors compounding the risk of intrafamily conflict.

The rise of domestic violence was anticipated. Unfortunately, the statistics are now showing the trend. On Sept. 1, Statistics Canada noted that police services that were able to report data on calls for service responded to more calls related to general well-being (welfare) checks (12 per cent increase), domestic disturbances (12 per cent increase) and mental health-related matters such as a person in an emotional crisis (11 per cent increase).

Of the three police services that were able to provide data on calls to check on the welfare of a child separately from calls for domestic disturbances, all three reported increases in this type of call (19 per cent increase overall).

By September, the Superior Court of Justice and Ontario Court of Justice had implemented approximately five months of virtual courtrooms in various regions. The plan to open further courtrooms in person and remotely was underway in all regional locations. With the enhanced resumption of court services, families will have greater access to judicial oversight.

As family law lawyer Farrah Hudani has said: “We have certainly seen an uptick in couples seeking a divorce in the face of the pandemic. However, with the courts establishing excellent online solutions to address motions and conferences and even cross examinations, we have been able to navigate through the new world order and we are finding that it is in fact a more cost-effective and efficient way to litigate.”

A new world indeed.  

Kathryn Hendrikx of Hendrikx Family Law, has a passion for family law. She is trained in alternative dispute resolution, mediation and collaborative family law methods. Hendrikx helps families with issues such as custody and access of children, parenting plans and high conflict separations. She is the past president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario and has been quoted in publications including The Globe and Mail.

Photo credit / CalypsoArt ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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