When you separate, there are often so many things that must get resolved – the parenting plan for the children, financial support for the children or for the spouse, the property division and all the details involved with all of those issues. Even if both sides are cooperating, resolving all these issues can take what seems like a very long time.  There is often fear on both sides about the unknown – our clients are always asking: “what will my life look like when the final settlement occurs? How can I cope when I don’t know if I will have enough money to take care of myself, let alone the kids? How much will I have to pay and will I be able to pay that much and still be able to live myself? Can’t somebody give me quick answers to all of this so I know what I have to deal with?”

Sooner or later, though, you do come to a resolution. Maybe it’s by agreement and you get it all written down in a nice legal document – your separation agreement. Or, if there was just no way to settle, by a Judge who makes a Court Order deciding all these issues for you both. At that point, you finally say “I’m done, it’s over with, now I can move on.” Problem is though, you just think you’re done. Maybe your lawyer told you or didn’t tell you, but with respect to parenting issues, child support and spousal support, the settlement arrangement can always be changed.

Even where you have an agreement which reads “my spouse will never get any spousal support”, the fact is that  Court can still award your spouse spousal support if the Court thinks circumstances have changed and support should now be paid.

Most court orders and agreements allow for a change of the parenting plan, child support or spousal support whenever a ‘material change in circumstances’ occurs from the time that the order or agreement was made. Today, we are seeing so many who have had an agreement or court order in place who need to change the support arrangements because they have lost their job for example. For the vast majority, going through the legal process again is not something they want to do. But they are forced to do so because they simply cannot continue paying what they agreed to pay, or because the children’s situation has changed and they need to revise their parenting plan in a significant way. Often, one of the children changes households from one parent to the other. What can you do now to change that old order or agreement.  You probably have no more money to pay lawyers – so what do you do.

Well, first you try to come to a new agreement with your former partner. But, if that is not realistic you end up having to bring what is called in the Family Court, a Motion to Change. You can fill out all the necessary forms yourself. The Ontario Government has the forms online at their web site http://www.ontariocourtforms.on.ca/english/. It also has a Guide to Motions to change at  http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/family/divorce/support/motion.asp which sets out the steps when you need to bring the Motion or when you need to respond to it.

In Barrie, Toronto, Newmarket, Oshawa, Brampton and Milton, there is a separate procedure set up which is designed to try and resolve these kinds of issues for you in a much quicker and more expeditious manner. A number of family law lawyers in each of these jurisdictions have agreed to donate several days of their time per year to sit as “Dispute Resolution Officers” or (as a D.R.O.). These lawyers will be handling your case when it appears that there is going to be a dispute about any of the matters which need to be changed in your prior agreement or Court Order. 

The D.R.O. role is to assist you in understanding the legal issues and procedure which you must follow in your case and to do as much as they can to assist you in resolving those issues by agreement so you don’t have to go all through the court system again.  All of them will read your material before you get to the hearing before them and all of them will know what your case is about before you get assuming you have expressed it well in your material. If you have not been able to express yourself well, they will take the time on the hearing date to ask questions so that they know why it is you feel the order should be changed or not changed. They spend about half a day ahead of the day they are sitting preparing for the day with you. You won’t be the only case on their list. So you won’t have their time all day. But you will be slotted usually for about a half hour to an hour, more if the other cases on the list get adjourned or move more quickly than yours.

Why are the lawyers doing this? Well first, they don’t get paid, so it’s sure not for the money. The main reason is that they know that there are just so many of these kinds of cases out there in our Family Court System right now, cases which the system just can’t handle due to the volume. Unfortunately, in these tough economic times, people find themselves having to revisit their old agreements and court orders due the big change a job loss or wage cut causes for them.  With all of the other ‘first time around’ cases going through the System, there are just not enough Judges or court personnel to properly handle the current volume.  Government budgets are strained and there just is not enough money to put into the Justice System to properly manage the current volume.

Needless to say, the D.R.O.  job is not an easy one. It is not easy to get people to agree on these issues, issues which people thought they had resolved for good, the first time around.  The fear of the unknown is back and the reality is that these fears are justified these days as there simply is no ability to pay support when you lose your job. The former spouse and children who need that money can’t get it anymore.  Handling these desperate and trying cases is certainly a difficult and unenviable task. 

Obviously, there are many social issues involved in situations like these – issues which can’t be addressed here. But I do think we need to express our heartfelt thanks to the D.R.O.’s out there who so selflessly try to make things work and make them better.  Not only are they not getting paid for their work, they are taking time away from their busy law practices.

I know there lots of ‘unsung heroes’ out there who do a lot of excellent volunteer work. Without volunteers, I don’t know where we would be. I hope you will agree with me that the D.R.O.s out there are part of these ‘unsung heroes’. We need to acknowledge their presence and pray for the time when we won’t need them anymore.