The process of separating from a spouse/partner can be an incredibly difficult time. Many find comfort in the knowledge that they are at least moving towards a resolution even if that progress is incremental. For many of these individuals, the onset of COVID-19, and the collective social and physical distancing efforts the world has undertaken may feel like an insurmountable barrier to moving forward. But, for most separations, it need not be.
In Ontario, professional and other social service providers who support the justice system have been included in the list of essential workplaces that may continue providing their services to the public at this time. To ensure client and employee safety alike, many of these workplaces, including Cunningham Swan, have adopted measures to provide remote services where possible.
If you have just separated and are looking for counsel to assist you, initial consultations may occur by videoconference. (As a result of COVID-19 and until further notice, the Law Society of Ontario [“LSO”] has advised it will interpret the requirement that lawyers verify the identity of new clients face-to-face as not requiring the lawyer to be in the physical presence of the client. The LSO has taken a similar approach to the requirements for the commissioning of documents such as affidavits. See here). Further, much of the documentation that will need to be collected and exchanged by parties at the outset of their separation can be completed electronically.
While Family Court operations may be suspended for most matters (see here for more information about how the Court has interpreted what constitutes an urgent family law matters in the current circumstances), progress towards resolution can still be made through a myriad of Alternative Means of Dispute Resolution. Negotiations can continue to occur through counsel. With a bit of planning and a suitable IT platform, four-way settlement meetings, mediations, and even arbitrations can be conducted by way of video conferencing.
In instances where there are uncertainties caused by the current times (for example the loss of one party’s employment), temporary agreements can and should be negotiated to provide stopgap measures until the reality of each party’s circumstances post COVID-19 are better known. For those parties with children, parenting schedules for the immediate future may need to differ from the schedule to be implemented following COVID-19. (See here for more information about Co-Parenting in the Face of COVID-19.)
If a full (or even partial or temporary) settlement is reached, your counsel can draft the necessary settlement documents and review them with you by email, telephone or teleconference. If necessary, arrangements can also be made for you to execute the final documents with a third-party witness.
Ultimately, achieving progress in times such as these will require parties to take a creative and pragmatic approach to the issues in their case. The approach to be taken will differ with the circumstances of each case and we would encourage you to seek advice from legal counsel to discuss your options and develop a strategy for moving forward.