French Language Services and Family Law
FLEW is a public legal education project funded by the government of Ontario to assist women in understanding their family law rights. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide individual legal assistance.
This section is meant to give you a basic understanding of legal issues. It is not a substitute for individual legal advice and assistance. If you are dealing with family law issues, get legal advice as soon as possible to protect your rights. For more information about how to find and pay for a family law lawyer, go to Finding Help with your Family Law Problem and Looking for a Family Law lawyer webinar.
(We appreciate the contribution of the Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario to the first edition of this information, published in 2009.)
When French-speaking women need family law services or when they have to appear before a court in Ontario, they have the right to receive certain services in French. The French Language Services Act and the Courts of Justice Actprotect French-speaking women’s rights to French language services. These rights are not always well known or respected. However, French-speaking women should try not to be discouraged. The justice system is complex enough that they shouldn’t have to defend their case in English.
French language services in Ontario
The French Language Services Act guaranties public access to Ontario government services, in French, in 25 designated areas across the province. To find out which areas are designated, please consult the website of the Office of Francophone Affairs.
In designated areas, all ministries and government agencies must offer services in French in at least one of the offices of the ministry or the agency situated in or serving this designated area. All offices must post in French the location where French language services are offered. However, even within designated areas, municipalities do not have the obligation to offer services in French. In June 2011, the government adopted a regulation regarding third parties, to protect French language services in Ontario. When the government uses a third party (such as a shelter) to offer services on its behalf, the regulation forces this third party to ensure that services are offered in accordance with obligations found in the French Language Services Act.
Offering services in French means that the person who offers the service is able to communicate directly, in French, with the French-speaking clientele. In fact, courts decided that using an interpreter is not enough to comply with the requirements of the French Language Services Act. In addition, French language services must be available, reliable and comparable in quality to services offered in English.
Like the government, organizations and agencies must make an “active offer” of French language services, which means that they must demonstrate clearly to their clientele that they offer services in French. An “active offer” means greeting people, in person or on the phone, and posting information, in both languages: signs, notices, leaflets and any other means to provide information about these services. The same applies to website home pages and recorded messages. All of these ways of actively offering services in French signal to the public that you can operate in French.
The public therefore has the right to communicate in French with the central office of a government agency and with one of its offices located in designated areas. The public also has the right to communicate in French with organizations that offer services on the government’s behalf.
In designated areas, the public has the right to access the following programs and services in French, in the area of family law:
- Family Mediation Services
- Mandatory Information Programs
- Family Law Information Centres
- Supervised Access Centres
- Family Court Support Worker Program
- Office of the Children’s Lawyer
For more information on how to access these services in your area, please consult the Ministry of the Attorney General’s website where you will also find general information on family law.
Ontario currently has 25 designated areas. About 85% of French-speaking Ontarians live in these designated areas. (Access to Justice in French – a report of the French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee to the Attorney General of Ontario, 2012)
Official languages of the courts
The Courts of Justice Act defines the obligation of courts of justice to offer services in French in Ontario and states that the official languages of the courts are French and English.
How can a french-speaking woman find out whether she has the right to a bilingual proceeding?
Everywhere in Ontario, a party to a proceeding before the Family Court of the Superior Court of Justice, the Ontario Court of Justice and the Small Claims Court, can file documents in French.
In other civil proceedings before the Superior Court of Justice, a party only has the right to file documents in French in the following regions:
- Counties of Essex, Middlesex, Prescott and Russell, Renfrew, Simcoe, Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry
- The area of the County of Welland, as it existed on December 31, 1969
- Territorial districts of Algoma, Cochrane, Kenora, Nipissing, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Timiskaming
- The Municipalities of Chatham Kent
- The Regional Municipality of Peel
- The cities of Hamilton, Ottawa, Greater Sudbury and Toronto
Everywhere else in Ontario (i.e. in areas not mentioned above and in proceedings that are not before the Family Court of the Superior Court of Justice, the Ontario Court of Justice or the Small Claims Court), a party can file documents written in French, if the other parties consent.
Women also have the right to a bilingual jury in the areas mentioned above.
Women have the right to bilingual proceedings, which means that their trial will take place in French and English, and that interpretation services will be provided as necessary, so they can be heard in French. The judge or the court reporter as well as any officer of the court presiding these proceedings (prothonotary, registrar) will be required to have the capacity to speak both French and English.
There are several means to exercise the right to bilingual proceedings. However, it is preferable to make a request as soon as possible by either:
- Filing or serving a first document in French
- Filing a “bilingual proceeding requisition” or written statement asking the court for a bilingual proceeding at least seven days before the first hearing
- Making an oral statement to request a bilingual proceeding during an appearance in the proceeding
Bilingual proceedings allow the people involved to express themselves in French at all hearings related to the case, including procedural motions, case conferences, pre-trial conferences and the trial itself, if there is one. At the end of the proceeding, a party who is not bilingual can also ask for a translation of the reasons for the decision from English to French or the reverse.
At a party’s request, the court will provide a French or an English translation of any document filed in the context of a case before the Family Court of the Superior Court of Justice and before the Ontario Court of Justice but not before a Superior Court of Justice in areas where there are no Family Courts.
Everywhere in Ontario, if they represent themselves or if they are asked to be a witness before a court, women are free to express themselves in French or English. The court must provide interpreters as need be. However, women who wish to express themselves in French should make a request to that effect to the court ten days prior to the hearing. If the request is made later, they may still be able to obtain permission from the court to express themselves in French. The court’s staff or the lawyer who asked them to be a witness can inform them of how to do so.
Statutes, regulations and forms
Since 1991, all public statutes of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, including statutes relating to family law, are published in French and English and have equal binding force. However, not all regulations are bilingual. Some are written in English only. Statutes and regulations can be consulted online, in French and English, on this website.
All forms routinely used by tribunals in family law, namely the Family Law Rules forms, are available in French and English, on this website.
Locating French-Speaking Lawyers for Women
The Law Society of Upper Canada, the organization that regulates lawyers in Ontario, requires that its members inform their clientele of their right to use French, either before the tribunal or during mediation, for example. The Law Society offers a free referral service to help the public find lawyers. Women can consult a lawyer for 30 minutes to help determine their rights and options. For more details, call 1-800-268-8326.
The Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario promotes justice in French and English in Ontario. You can find a directory of French-speaking lawyers on their website.
Legal Aid Ontario provides low-income people with access to a range of legal services adapted to their needs, including advice lawyer services at Family Law Information Centres. These lawyers can answer general questions and, depending on the area, can offer services in French.
French Woman’s Complaint Process
In practice, despite existing rights to French language services, it is often difficult to exercise them. If a woman tries to obtain French language services to which she is entitled but does not succeed, she can file a complaint with the French Language Services Commissioner. The Office of the French Language Services Commissioner monitors the application of the French Language Services Act and conducts investigations in response to complaints or on the Commissioner’s own initiative. She can also consult a lawyer to explore other options.
Locating French Legal Resources for Women
The website of the Femmes ontariennes et droit de la famille campaign includes important information on family law and many other resources.
The website Les droits des femmes francophones en Ontario contains a significant amount of information in several areas of the law. The website includes information on family law, criminal law, immigration law and linguistic rights. It can help French-speaking women understand the provincial and the federal court system.
The website www.cliquezjustice.ca contains simplified and accessible legal information, adapted to children, youth, the wider public, teachers and members of the legal profession. It can help French-speaking women better understand the way the justice system works or obtain general answers to several legal issues (family law, immigration law, contract law, etc.).
For more French language information about your rights, contact a lawyer, a community legal clinic, or the support line Fem’aide at 1-877-336-2433, TTY 1-866-860-7082. You can find more information on Les droits des femmes francophones en Ontario.
Warning – When a couple ends their relationship, the risk of lethal violence for women who are victims of domestic violence is at its highest. If you are facing immediate danger, call the police. To obtain help or develop a safety plan in French, in Ontario, please contact the French language helpline Fem’Aide at 1-877-336-2433,