All's Fair in Love and Divorce - North America's First Divorce Fair

Donalee Moulton for The Lawyers Weekly

For roughly 40 per cent of Canadians, "until death do us part" is wishful thinking. Nearly four out of every 10 marriages in this country will end in divorce, yet discussions about the implications and the impact often happen in back rooms and in hushed conversations.

The Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia (LISNS) brought the issue out into the open with what is believed to be North America's first Divorce Fair. "We wanted to fill a needs gap. We know from the calls we get and visits to our website that family law is the biggest topic," said LISNS Executive Director Maria Franks.

It's also a topic that, for many, is narrowly defined, she noted. "When people think about divorce, they think about a lawyer but not other issues, issues like property and pensions."

The two-day event, held in January (the peak month for divorces), featured information sessions on a range of topics related to the "D" word, such as separation, parenting during and after divorce, dealing with stress, property and pension issues. Several law firms had booths at the event and their lawyers made presentations on a range of topics.

For most law firms, however, participating in Canada's first Divorce Fair came after some serious contemplation and considerable media attention. "This was a fair unlike those we attended as children," said Leisa MacIntosh, a family mediator and lawyer with MacIntosh, MacDonnell & MacDonald in New Glasgow.

"The name itself caught our attention," she noted. "It was attractive and effective in getting the message across. The flippant name either grated on one's senses or provoked a giggle, because most know that divorce tends to be a painful and high-stress, private process."

"Initially we said 'no way,'" said Sandra Barss, a family law lawyer with McGinty Law in Halifax. "Then we started hearing more about this and reading about this."

"We liked the philosophy behind it - get the information out there so people know what they're entitled to and what they're responsible for," she added.

Education was at the heart of the event, a concept growing in popularity in Europe. "It's all about getting the information people need when they need it," said Franks.

There is little doubt people need information on the legal aspects of divorce. "There is so much misinformation out there that greater efforts must be made to inform and educate the public," said Terrance Sheppard, a lawyer with Boyne Clarke Barristers & Solicitors in Dartmouth. "Everyone knows someone - a relative, neighbour, co-worker, etc. - that has gone through a divorce or separation and a lot of what they pass on is not correct or gets horribly skewed in the telling of it."

Indeed, said Barss, "there are so many misconceptions about what you are going to 'get' when you are divorced. This includes child support and property division."

"Those of us who practise in family law realize that family law doesn't belong in the courts," she added.

That message was driven home by keynote speaker Justice Harvey Brownstone, author of Tug of War: A Judge's Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles and the Bitter Realities of Family Court, a new book that cautions readers the family court system "is not Judge Judy."

The goal of Tug of War-to reduce the turmoil for parents, children and everyone involved in a divorce-is also the goal of the Divorce Fair. "Divorce or separation is a life-altering experience," says Franks, "and everyone could use support and guidance, whether you are married or in a common-law relationship."

In fact, new research from York University found that divorce can actually be deadly. Although separated and divorced people made up 10 per cent of the population of Ontario in the year studied, they accounted for 25 per cent of all suicides. In contrast, married people made up 49 per cent of the population but accounted for less than 30 per cent of suicides.

The Divorce Fair - in the making for more than a year - was designed to give participants (men only on the first day, women on the second) the information they needed in a welcome and safe environment. "The better informed they are, the more smoothly their divorce will go for themselves, their children, their lawyers and the courts," said Sheppard.

"There is a huge percentage of self-represented litigants in the family courts in this province, far more than in other areas of practice," he added. "The same person who wouldn't dream of writing their will, or representing themselves for a criminal charge, or a contract dispute, will merrily go off to court for their own divorce. They need to have as much accurate information about the law as they can get."

Many individuals facing the prospect or reality of divorce also need a little comfort and reassurance. "We saw the Divorce Fair as an opportunity to 'normalize' the feelings of frustration and helplessness frequently experienced by those in the separation process," said MacIntosh.

"Many attendees related to the feeling of being in a ship without a rudder, not knowing which way or how to turn," she noted. "The fair offered easy access to information about many issues that they will need to address during their journey."

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