27 April 2014

CBA Publishes Family Law Resources

The Canadian Bar Association, the national association of Canadian lawyers, has just published an excellent resource from its national family law section and number of materials directed at the public further to its Equal Justice Initiative. (The CBA's Access to Justice Committee was another product of this Initiative, you may recall, and published its final report, Reaching Equal Justice Report: An Invitation to Envision and Act (PDF), in November 2013.)

Legal Health Checks

In a new resources page on its website, beneath the compelling banner "Law. You. Check it out.", the CBA says:
"An important part of improving access to justice is to ensure people have the information and tools they need to avoid legal problems in the first place, or to prevent those problems from becoming bigger than they might have been. As part of the CBA’s Reaching Equal Justice initiative, CBA is offering 6 Legal Health Checks for the public. ... The goal of the Checks is to encourage people to recognize legal problems early, and to take action when they do identify them. For lawyers, these materials are a way to start conversations with people about the law, how to get legal help and how to work effectively with a lawyer."
The "checks" are smartly-designed, one- or two-page documents that provide cursory information about different legal issues and encourage people to get legal advice. Five Steps to Legal Wellness (PDF), for example, tells people to deal with legal problems when they come up, keep paperwork like contracts, get help right away, get advice from a lawyer and remain calm when discussing the problem. Heady stuff.

On family law subjects, On My Own: Youth (PDF) says that sex without consent is a crime, warns against sharing explicit photographs and warns that "having a baby means financial and other consequences for both parents until the baby grows up." How to Avoid Surprises (PDF) cautions that being in a romantic relationship can have consequences and encourages people to get legal advice "before you live together, before you have a child, before you get married, when your marriage or common-law partnership is ending." 

Breaking Up (PDF), a concise one-page document, talks about the financial consequences of separation and encourages people to "speak to a lawyer when you are calm" and to use the lawyer for "legal advice, not counselling." A companion sheet, Breaking Up: Parenting (PDF), another one-pager, tells people that "by getting legal help with parenting decisions" they can focus on children's needs, avoid conflict, protect themselves and find lasting solutions.

I'm a staunch supporter of public legal information and public legal education, but with the greatest of respect I'm not sure what what the six checks are going to accomplish, or whether they will "encourage people to recognize legal problems early, and to take action" as intended. The materials on family law matters are brief and insubstantial, and provide little by way of legal information except to recommend speaking to a lawyer. Of course everyone with a legal problem, real or potential, ought to speak to a lawyer, but here is what Canada's Chief Justice said when addressing an access to justice conference in Toronto in February 2011:
"Do we have adequate access to justice? It seems to me that the answer is no. We have wonderful justice for corporations and for the wealthy. But the middle class and the poor may not be able to access our justice system."
And there's the rub.

Tax Matters Toolkit

The new material from the CBA's national family law section, a group for members who practice family law, is a resource called Tax Matters Toolkit: Separation and Divorce (PDF) that is published in two versions, one aimed at family law lawyers and one aimed at their clients. The client resource is short but jam-packed with useful information about the tax issues that come up when a relationship breaks down. It talks about:
  • how and when the Canada Revenue Agency must be told about changes in marital status
  • knowing when potential tax issues are worth the cost of speaking to a tax specialist
  • the CRA's definitions of important terms like "child," "common law partner," "principle residence," "separation" and "shared custody"
  • sharing RRSPs and other kinds of pension plans and pension funds
The resource also provides a list — complete with links! — of important CRA forms and describes what the forms are meant to accomplish. 

The resource does not talk about common but very complicated tax problems like tax arrears and potential taxes owing for present and past years, planning spousal support for the maximum tax advantage or sharing the value of family companies, but that's entirely understandable. Those issues can be very, very complicated and generally do require expert advice.

Good job, family law section!