Cape Breton lawyer raises concerns over impact of COVID-19 on custody disputes

A Sydney, N.S., lawyer is worried about the impact social distancing orders is having on custody disputes in the province.

Family law lawyer Candee McCarthy says the impacts of COVID-19 are widespread and have severely hampered the court processes.

"I have parents that are concerned about access and following their court order," she told CBC's Mainstreet Cape Breton.

"You have a court order, but then you also have this order from the chief medical [officer of health]. How do you balance both with respect to child custody?"

As of Thursday, there are 73 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the province.

Some of the social-distancing measures imposed by the province include keeping two metres between yourself and other people, limiting social gatherings to no more than five people, and keeping grocery shopping and other errands to essential times only.

Earlier this week, Justice Minister Mark Furey indicated courts are operating at reduced levels and only addressing higher priority cases.

"Only those most urgent, and in some cases emergency proceedings around family court, must continue," Furey said. "Again, to find that balance between functionality of the courts and public safety."

Craig Paisley/CBC

With child custody, McCarthy said she hopes people can make logical decisions.

"If you're not reasonable, you know, you're going to pay the price later on," she said.

McCarthy said some people are having trouble making court-ordered child support payments because of being laid off work.

"I have parents that are concerned about access and following their order," she said.

Cancellations, longer wait times

As cases continue to be delayed, McCarthy said she has been told that court dates will be assessed on a week-to-week basis. She had cases cancelled both last week and this week.

"A lot of these people have waited well over a year," McCarthy said.

Furey said court dates are proceeding, but the health and safety of indviduals involved in the judicical process must be protected.

McCarthy said in an ideal world, cases could go ahead with online hearings, but the technology has not reached every courtroom just yet.

She's advising people to find ways to settle issues outside of the courtroom, saying it could be well into the fall before many family court cases are even heard.