Legal logjam
Family law cases backed up

Scott Crabbe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 21/00) - In response to a backlog of family court files, the NWT Legal Services Board has opened up new positions in Inuvik and Yellowknife in the NWT and Rankin Inlet in Nunavut.

According to a memo sent from legal aid to the bar association, a backlog of up to 80 case files has piled up, creating a heavy workload for family law lawyers.

Part of the backlog can be attributed to a decreasing amount of lawyers practising family law. As well, increased job-related stress due to the emotions affiliated with family crisis continually leaves lawyers emotionally drained.

"There are high stakes involved in family law," said Gregory Nearing, executive director of the board.

In order to handle the backlog, priority is given to the most urgent cases, which, at times, can contribute to an overlap between criminal and family law.

"Family law encompasses more than just disputes," said Sarah Kay, a family law lawyer based in Yellowknife.

"There may be cases of spousal abuse, substance abuse, there may be a need for counselling."

Unlike criminal lawyers, family law lawyers are not on rotation, thereby making it difficult for people in the communities requiring their service to obtain it. Therefore, applicants are routinely assigned lawyers from larger communities.

This results in consultations done over the phone which could lead to problems in court.

The new family law positions that have opened through legal aid expected to relive some of the backlog.

Michelle Staszuk moved from Vancouver to Hay River to practise family law about a year-and-a-half ago.

"There's only so much you can do over the phone or by fax machine," Staszuk said.

Despite the fact that legal aid files only pay about half that of the private case files, Staszuk, like many family counsellors (in the private bar), take on a certain amount every month.

This type of close working relationship between legal aid and the private sector can be attributed to a "unspoken bond" existing in the field of law within the small communities.