Supporting Families Experiencing Separation and Divorce Initiative Evaluation

Executive Summary

1. Introduction

The Supporting Families Experiencing Separation and Divorce Initiative (SFI) is a five-year $122 million Justice Canada initiative introduced on April 1, 2009. It builds on a foundation of federal and provincial/territorial collaboration on family justice issues. The SFI is intended to strengthen the family justice response to the needs of families experiencing separation and divorce by contributing to the continued improvement of access to family justice and by encouraging greater parental compliance with family obligations, notably support and access.

The evaluation of the SFI covered the period between 2009 and 2013. In accordance with the Treasury Board Secretariat's Policy on Evaluation, it addressed the core issues of relevance and performance.

2. Methodology

Multiple data collection methods were used in the evaluation, including:

  • a review of SFI program documents and statistics;
  • a web-based survey (667 respondents) and telephone interviews (33 participants) with practising family lawyers and mediators;
  • interviews with judges and federal, provincial and territorial representatives (35 interviews);
  • a detailed review of the Supporting Families Fund (SFF) grants and contributions documents;
  • an analysis of exit surveys completed by persons who had used parenting education programs and mediation services;
  • SFF case studies (24 in total);
  • parent focus groups (12 in total);
  • a national survey of 1,200 parents experiencing separation and divorce;
  • a review of national research/statistics; and
  • a review of family justice literature.

Triangulation of the data was used to verify and validate the findings and to arrive at a consensus that is reflected in the evaluation conclusions.

3. Findings

3.1. Relevance

Continued need

The SFI activities are addressing many of the significant needs of families. Although some progress has been made, there continues to be a need for specific legal information that addresses the needs of families who are from linguistic or cultural minorities and those living in remote communities. Also, the complex needs of high conflict parents are not being completely addressed and those cases are creating extensive backlogs in the family justice system. Information alone is not sufficient for some of these families. Access to timely, low cost and accurate legal information at certain points in the legal process is particularly important for self-represented litigants (SRLs), who represent an increasing proportion of family justice system users.

There is a continued need for a comprehensive national program to address the diverse needs of families experiencing separation and divorce. The Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters stressed the need for change to make the justice system more accessible. It highlighted the need to provide more information and a single-point of entry. Footnote 1 The SFI helps in both of these areas by providing public legal education and information (PLEI) Footnote 2 and by providing services such as family law information centers. The Coordinating Committee of Senior Officials - Family Justice (CCSO-FJ) has also made a business case emphasizing the need for continuity of services and programs by federal, provincial and territorial governments to support separating and divorcing clients of the family justice system, and advocating for sustained, long-term funding from the federal government to help the provinces and territories maintain and continuously improve the delivery of these services.

Alignment with government priorities

SFI activities, outputs and the ultimate outcome for this Initiative are fully aligned with the Justice Canada's strategic outcome of a fair, relevant and accessible Canadian justice system. The comprehensive leadership, assistance and investment activities undertaken by the SFI are also aligned with the federal government commitment to ensure that Canadian families experiencing separation and divorce will continue to be well served. Footnote 3

The SFI also supports activities, programs and services directed towards assisting parents to comply with their custody, access and support obligations, which is aligned with the federal government priority to build a stronger society that promotes respect for the law. Footnote 4

Alignment with federal roles and responsibilities

Family law in Canada is an area of shared jurisdiction between the federal and provincial and territorial governments, as a result of the distribution of legislative powers under the Constitution Act, 1867. The leadership, assistance and investment activities undertaken by the Justice Canada Family, Children and Youth Section (FCY) are fully aligned with the federal government's mandate in relation to its legislative authority under the Divorce Act, the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act (FOAEAA) and the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act (GAPDA). SFI activities are consistent with its role in the development of family law and policy work nationally and internationally, facilitating collaboration and partnership building among the jurisdictions through the CCSO-FJ, supporting the ongoing quality improvement and innovation of family justice services and programs in the jurisdictions, mainly achieved through the SFF and the development of PLEI at the federal level.

Although the roles and mandates of the federal government are distinct from those of the provinces and territories, the different governments work together within a clearly defined structure of collaboration. This ensures that the SFI contributes to: addressing issues of access to justice and parental compliance with custody, access and support obligations; helping mitigate the negative effects of separation and divorce; and ensuring that the best interests of the child remain at the heart of family justice.

3.2. Performance - Achievement of Expected Outcomes

Federal, Provincial and Territorial capacity

The SFI activities have strengthened federal capacity to address the needs of families experiencing separation and divorce. Activities that have had the most impact include: providing contribution funding through the SFF to improve enforcement systems; supporting the gathering and dissemination of national enforcement data through two national surveys (the Civil Court Survey (CCS) and the Survey of Maintenance Enforcement Programs (SMEP)); ensuring PLEI is available on the Justice Canada website and in printed documents including The Federal Child Support Guidelines: Step-by-Step; and providing leadership in terms of collaboration and partnership building with the provinces and territories.

The SFI has enhanced the capacity of the provinces and territories to provide and deliver family justice services that meet the needs of families experiencing separation and divorce. Some of the most significant achievements include SFF grant and contribution funding to support activities programs and services that meet the needs of families in the provinces and territories; partnership building between the jurisdictions which supports effective program planning, research and policy development; the development of widely-used federal PLEI material; and the provision of federal enforcement services that assist the Maintenance Enforcement Programs (MEPs) in their support enforcement related activities.

Enhanced awareness and understanding of parental obligations, compliance and the family justice system

The activities of the SFI have enhanced parental awareness of the family justice system including custody, access and support obligations and their compliance with them. Parent education programs are the best means of enhancing parent awareness and have made an important contribution to cultural shifts in thinking about parental responsibilities. These include the importance of placing the needs of children at the centre of custody, access, and support agreements and the value of mediation as a means of reaching custody and support agreements.

The SFI has also contributed to enhancing the knowledge and awareness of legal professionals, particularly through the funding of specialized training and the development and distribution of PLEI.

Expanded accessibility of family justice programs and services

The SFI has dedicated significant resources to increasing the accessibility of family justice services and programs to targeted groups of parents including linguistic and cultural minorities and those who are geographically isolated. Access is most effectively achieved through parent education programs, enforcement assistance delivered through the provinces and territories, the dissemination of PLEI. However, some groups are considered to have continuing issues of accessibility (e.g. First Nations, specific linguistic and cultural minorities and high conflict parents).

Improved efficiency of enforcement tools and services

The SFI has also contributed to improvements at the federal level by addressing system efficiencies, improving business practices, adding new sources of garnishable moneys, and enhancing electronic transfer of enforcement information to and from the jurisdictions so that provincial and territorial efforts to support compliance can be simplified and made more efficient. The SFI has also supported the provinces and territories through improvements in enforcement systems and technologies, the hiring of specialized enforcement staff, and assistance with participation in national data collection on enforcement issues.

Enhanced capacity and ability of parents to reach agreements and comply

The SFI has had a significant role in enhancing the capacity of parents to reach appropriate custody, access and support agreements and compliance with custody and access agreements. This was achieved particularly through the funding of services and programs such as mediation, parent education, and the development and distribution of PLEI products.

Increased parental compliance with financial support obligations

The SFI has made progress towards increased parental compliance with their financial obligations through services and programs funded under the SFF, as well as PLEI and service improvements provided through FCY. Aspects of the SFI services and activities that were seen to contribute the most to compliance were those provided under FOAEAA and GAPDA, technical and systems assistance provided to the MEPs, funding of recalculation services to help keep child support payments in line with earnings, and the availability of new sources of moneys for garnishments.

Increased effectiveness of the family justice system in addressing the needs of families experiencing separation and divorce

Considered as a whole, SFI leadership, assistance and investment activities have led to the achievement of direct and intermediate outcomes that have resulted in improvements to the effectiveness of the family justice system in addressing the needs of families experiencing separation and divorce. These include the funding for family justice services, programs and activities that support parental awareness, enhanced accessibility to services, and support parental compliance with their custody, access and support responsibilities.

Mediation, parent education programs, PLEI, and enforcement-related services are the most effective in terms of exemplifying best practice elements and are associated with the highest levels of parent satisfaction.

3.3. Performance - Demonstration of Efficiency and Economy

The SFI has been administered economically, but the level of salary and operation and maintenance (O&M) funding was not sufficient to meet the demands placed on Justice Canada's Family Law Assistance Services (FLAS) for system upgrades and for its operation between 2009 and 2013.

The administration of both the SFF and FLAS has been shown to have high levels of operational efficiency. The administrative costs as a percentage of total operating costs are low, as is the resulting efficiency ratio. In addition to having a low administrative efficiency ratio, the Program Development Unit (PDU) meets and exceeds the Justice Canada service standards for the administration of the SFF 100% of the time.

In addition to helping to achieve the outcomes of the SFI, the SFF support of mediation services and parent education programs has had a positive impact on reducing costs for families. Although this is not a direct cost savings to the federal government, it is an indication of the multiplying effect of the federal investment and one of the measurable benefits of supporting these programs and services. The outcomes for parents of FLAS activities are also substantial when compared to the amount of federal net expenditures.

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