The courts, like all government and public institutions and agencies, are required to comply with Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which is intended to ensure that all people with disabilities have full and equal access to all public services in the province.
Realities to consider
Before we look at what accommodations are available in the family court, there are two important realities to consider:
- As with most large institutions that are moving to increase the accessibility of their physical space and their services, the courts have made more progress in the areas of physical accessibility than they have in ensuring full accommodation for people with psychological, emotional or mental disabilities, disorders or difficulties.
Most courthouses are at least minimally accessible for people with mobility disabilities; most courts understand and respond to the need for American Sign Language Interpretation; many are able to accommodate someone whose physical disability requires them to take extra breaks, and so on.
While there is a commitment to providing accommodation to people with psychological or mental barriers, it may be a more difficult process to make the court understand the seriousness of the psychological issue and the extent to which it interferes with the person’s equitable access to the court process.Below, you will find some information about accommodations that are available and how to access them as well as some tips for supporting a client with a psychological disability.
- However, it is extremely important that the woman you are working with consider seriously the possible downsides to her case if she identifies herself as needing accommodation because of psychological difficulties.This is especially true in custody and access cases. If a woman flags for the court, for example, that she is experiencing PTSD, for the purpose of being provided with support, this information could be powerful ammunition in her former partner’s hands if he wants to establish that she is not capable of having custody of the children. He could make use of any medical diagnosis she has provided to the court to further his argument that she should not be responsible for the children.
In such a situation, the woman could (and should) make a strong argument that the PTSD is the result of the abuse she has been subjected to. Her argument will be strengthened if she has a medical report confirming this that also discusses the ongoing treatment she is receiving, its impact and any information the medical professional can provide that minimizes the negative impact of the PTSD on the woman’s parenting abilities.
The woman could then argue that joint custody or shared decision making or extensive access with no supervised exchanges is not appropriate because of the negative impact on the children when their mother’s PTSD is triggered by contact with the abuser.
What the woman needs to be aware of is that many judges view any possibility of a mental health or psychological issue as a serious and negative factor when making decisions about custody and access. She should discuss the pros and cons of seeking accommodation with her therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist as well as with her lawyer before she makes a final decision. You can assist her prepare the questions she wants to ask and write down her key worries before these discussions.
What accommodations are available
In Ontario, accessibility to the courts for people with disabilities is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of the Attorney General. Each courthouse as an Accessibility Coordinator. You can find the contact information for the Accessibility Coordinator at your family courthouse.
According to the Ministry of the Attorney General website, some of the accommodations the courts can provide that might be useful for a women dealing with PTSD or other psychological or mental disabilities or disorders are:
- Scheduling of meetings or proceedings in rooms and at times that can accommodate the woman’s disability
- Providing some services by phone or by email to meet a disability-related need
- Allowing the woman to use a service animal
- Allowing the woman to use her disability-related support person. This person may be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, and the role of the support person may need to be agreed to in advance of the meeting or proceeding
If you or the woman you are supporting wants to provide feedback or make a complaint to the Ministry about accessibility at the court, you can do so using an online form.
The Ministry also has an accessibility committee, which produces regular newsletters.
Tips for supporting a woman
A service provider has an important role to play in supporting a woman who needs accommodation by the family court for a psychological disorder or disability.
The more you know about what your family court can offer the better. Don’t wait until you have a client who needs accommodation to search out this information. Contact the Accessibility Coordinator now, explain your role and ask what the Coordinator’s role is. Explore some of the issues your clients may be dealing with to see what kinds of accommodations might be possible. Find out what information the court would want to see to provide accommodation. Ask the coordinator if there are other people you should talk to.
Explore whether you, in your capacity as a woman’s advocate, could be considered a disability-related support person.
If your client wants to ask the court for assistance, encourage her to provide as much advance notice as she can. You can give her the contact information for the Accessibility Coordinator or, if she wants you to, be her liaison with that person. Where the woman or you have some strategies in mind, share them with the Coordinator so she has lots of time to consider them.
Encourage your client to get medical records (a letter from her doctor or therapist, a medical report, etc.) that provide a diagnosis of PTSD or anxiety, but that also connect the psychological disorder with the abuse, describe the treatment the woman is receiving and comment – where possible – on her strengths as a parent.
Prepare the woman for her time at court, by talking to her about:
- Making sure her safety plan has been updated to keep her safe while she is at court
- The importance of getting a good night’s sleep before coming to court
- Making appropriate arrangements for the children for the day, so she is not distracted or worried about them while she is at court
- Preparing for her time at court by reviewing her documents and being clear about the purpose of the court date
- Making a plan to get to and from court safely
- Bringing a support person to court with her
- Coming to court prepared to be there for the day (bringing snacks, drinks, something to read or do, etc.)
- Having a strategy in place for dealing with her ex if he approaches her in the waiting area