Early assessment, triage and referral – dawn is breaking for families experiencing separation and divorce

In our last post we highlighted the need for any justice design (or reform) initiative to start with a deep dive into the user experience and to involve users throughout the process.

The image of the flashlight on a dark night is a stark reminder of how opaque and terrifying the current system can be for someone trying to navigate it on their own. So what are we learning about how to address those problems? How could the system (those working within or for the system) move from the dark night to the light of day?

One very promising approach is early assessment, triage and referral (Note 1):

  • Early: The earlier in the separation process that family members can access information and assistance to illuminate the “big picture” the better. This should not be limited to those who are in the court process as that is just one of many available options and, if possible, it makes sense to support the family to resolve matters as quickly and affordably as possible before the adversarial nature of the court system causes issues to escalate).
  • Assessment: Each family’s situation is unique and each person has unique needs, interests, hopes and fears. There is rarely a “one size fits all” solution in this complex environment. The family member needs to tell their story, someone familiar with the system (often called a “navigator”) needs to listen carefully to identify the cluster of legal and non-legal issues and then together they can begin to map out available options/pathways.
  • Triage: Based on the assessment, action needs to be taken quickly on any urgent issues (particularly the need for protection orders, safety planning etc.). Then the navigator works with the family member to create a pathway incorporating the “best” options for the family.
  • Referral: Part of the pathway will likely involve referral to legal and community resources (online or in person resources or both) to assist the family with the identified issues. Referrals could be made to lawyers, mediators, debt counsellors, personal counsellors/therapists, housing advisors, social workers, financial advisors, transition houses etc.

Well-designed technology could support one or more of these functions.
In BC, the Pathfinder initiative and the Victoria Skills for Changing Families initiative (Note 2), both supported by Access to Justice BC, and the Victoria Provincial Court Early Resolution Prototype initiative (Note 3) are all focused on creating processes to support early assessment, triage and referral. The Lab is involved in the Pathfinder initiative and fully supports all of these innovative approaches.

Stay tuned for more details!

Note 1: This is not new. The final 2013 report of the “Prevention, Triage and Referral Working Group” (of the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil & Family Matters) advocated for this approach. In particular, it recommended that priority and resources be “directed toward serving people in the most just and effective way possible, as early as possible, as they begin to experience a legal problem.”

Note 2: This initiative is still in the design stages and involves a multi-disciplinary collaboration to focus on high conflict families engaged in prolonged court proceedings at both the BC Provincial and Supreme Court levels, and incorporating the New Ways for Families (NWFF) program into an earlier model. The current model includes an integrated involvement of the judiciary in the management of the cases, an assessment and referral function, a skills-based structured program (NWFF) and mediation designed for high conflict participants.

Note 3: This initiative is well into the design stage and may be implemented in Victoria in the spring of 2019. It is a collaboration between the Ministry of Justice, the Provincial Court of BC, the Victoria Justice Access Centre, Court Services Branch, Court administration and family-serving people and agencies. It will be testing a new process proposed by the much anticipated new Provincial Court Rules which incorporates early assessment, triage and referral, and a presumptive referral to a free mediation service provided by Family Justice Counsellors in appropriate cases.

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