Divorce, Taxpayers, and Government

Updated November 1st. In July this year, British Columbia changed the process by which a resident could personally apply for and obtain a divorce in the province. Alberta is about to change its process. Both provinces are setting bad precedents.

In 1971 Self-Counsel Press pioneered the supply of forms and instructions to Canadians wanting to apply for a divorce without the costs of a lawyer. The Divorce Guide for British Columbia, published early that year, was the first book of its kind in North America and was the first book published by this company.

Over the years following our first divorce guide, we added guide books (and kits of the required forms) for every province and territory in Canada except Quebec.

Legal Changes

Change has been a constant during the past four decades. The Federal Government has occasionally modified the core law that regulates divorce throughout the country. Provincial governments have made, through their court systems, frequent changes to the procedures they require applicants to follow.

Along with regular changes, another constant has been this: when a change has been announced, a “grace period” has been allowed at provincial court registries, so that those who have started gathering their documents and preparing the paperwork for their initial filing in application for an uncontested divorce may actually use the materials they have worked on.

The idea of the “grace period” is simple: the paperwork for an initial filing at the registry office takes time to prepare. It is not something one sits down and knocks out on a typewriter (in the old days), or computer (today), in one evening. In many instances, the applicants need to apply for a certified copy of their marriage certificate, and in all cases they need to assemble information and add it to the paperwork. None of this is usually very hard, which is why do-it-yourself divorces are possible for most couples whose financial affairs are not unusually complicated. But the preparation takes time.

This is Wrong

When BC changed its divorce procedures this past July, it did so after a lengthy legal consultation. The objectives were to streamline the process and to move towards an eventual online filing process. There was little wrong with the objectives.

How the changes were implemented was where everything went badly wrong.

The new forms and procedures were not publicly released until the week before the change was due to come into effect. The only place they could be found was what appeared to be a highly unstable, experimental web server which was not working as often as it was.

On Friday, July 2nd, we returned to work from celebrating Canada Day to what quickly became a flood of telephone calls from customers. These people had gone to their local court registry, freshly prepared divorce applications in hand, only to be told their paperwork (which would have been valid 48 hours earlier) was no longer acceptable. They would have to start over.

By the following week, we were receiving telephone calls from lawyers, legal aid groups,and others with ties to the BC legal system, asking if we had the new forms, because it seemed no one did. Let me repeat that: many BC lawyers did not have the divorce paperwork demanded by the court registries, but the registries were already refusing applicants with “last month’s” paperwork!

The administration of government, like a guardianship, ought to be directed to the good of those who confer, not of those who receive the trust. Cicero.

I have no idea where in government the BC decision to not permit a grace period for divorce filings using the “old” (previous month’s) forms was made. I doubt it was made in the registry system. I also doubt it was made by the courts. I strongly suspect (but cannot prove) the decision was made high up in the Ministry in Victoria, by administrators who had no sense of the mess their decision would cause, and likely did not care. They had an agenda, money to spend on fancy computer servers, probably new staff to manage the glossy new hardware, and apparently no interest in anything else.

Alberta is Next

We recently began receiving calls from officials in the Alberta civil service. Did we know, they asked, about the upcoming changes in the divorce process in Alberta? We did not, but we found out quickly.

Alberta is introducing new procedures and new paperwork for divorce applications in that province on Monday, November 1st. Sadly, or perhaps I should say shockingly, it appears that Alberta is ploughing the same dubious furrow pioneered by BC.

Off-the-record chats with people in the court registry system in Alberta in recent days have revealed:

  • They know the changes are coming.
  • They don’t know the details.
  • They expect to get “training” in the new system at the end of this week.
  • They have no idea if there will be a grace period for people with forms which would be valid today, if they file those forms on November 1st or later. Some think there “might” be one. Others think not.

We Need Better Service

Bearing in mind that divorce law in Canada is Federal law, the changes made in BC, and those about to happen in Alberta, are changes in process. The law has not changed. Only the paperwork has changed.

For us at Self-Counsel, these changes impose some tough deadlines. We can live with those. What distresses us (and frankly makes me personally angry), is this:

The manner in which these changes are being made hurts tax paying people at a vulnerable and difficult time in their lives, for no good reason.

An Appeal
If you are involved in making these decisions, please take a few moments out of your busy agenda and go talk to your customers at the court registries, the people filing divorce applications. Ask them if they are happy about the problems and pain you are inflicting upon them. Then do the right thing and apply a 30- or 60-day grace period so they can use the papers they have prepared.

Update — November 1

As we reported last week, Alberta has introduced new forms and procedures for people applying for divorce in the province. As we suspected, the introduction is a mess.

Staff in the Alberta court registries, who must deal with consumers and lawyers trying to file divorce applications, did not receive any training on or information about the new forms and procedures until late last Friday.

Just as happened in British Columbia this past July, Alberta has changed the system with what appears to be no planning or consideration of what impact the change might have. Just like July, our telephones started ringing at the opening of business today, with consumers, lawyers, and government departments from Alberta all asking if we have the new forms and instructions on how to use them, because they do not have them.

Late this evening (Monday, November 1st) the new Alberta Courts web server site for the Court of Queen’s Bench (which handles divorce applications) is broken, throwing up “unhandled error” messages for file errors plus information which tells me the server is mis configured.

We saw the same thing happen in BC in July, when a rushed effort to update the server with information for the legal profession resulted in multiple periods of down-time for the server. It took BC half the month of July to post the information which the court registries were told to enforce from the first working day of the month. We hope Alberta does better. We are not optimistic.

What we are doing

Our staff worked through this past weekend, together with our divorce specialists in Alberta, to get the new forms and procedures ready. They are likely still a few days away from completion.

I would love to give a specific date and time when updates will be available for customers who have our current Alberta divorce kits and are caught in this bureaucratic mess. I cannot. All I can say is, we are working flat-out to do what we can to help.

More commentary on this topic can be found here.

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