In a post on June 1, 2018, I discussed proposed amendments to the Divorce Act that, if passed, would be the first major changes to the current Act since 1985. I recently attended a Family Law Conference, at which Stéphanie M. Cormier, a lawyer at Actus Law in Moncton, New Brunswick (and Chair of the CBA Family Law group) presented in more detail on the amendments to the Divorce Act (and several other Acts) proposed in Bill-C78. As of April 11, 2019, this bill was in its second reading in the Senate. The focus of this post will be solely on the proposed amendments to the Divorce Act, as these changes are voluminous enough to generate significant discussion. Also, I will not go through each and every amendment in detail. Should you wish to read the Bill in its entirety, you can visit the link here to the House of Commons website version of same. Also, here is a link to the current status of this bill.
Firstly, I wish to note that I maintain the same opinions expressed in my June 1, 2018 post that the proposed amendments to the Divorce Act are mostly positive. For example, the amendments include adding a non-exhaustive list of criteria with respect to best interests of the child. This is a positive change in and of itself, as family law practitioners (in New Brunswick anyway) have traditionally had to utilize the criteria contained in the caselaw and in the Family Services Act. Oddly enough, previous versions of the Divorce Act did not include a list of criteria for best interests of the child, even though all decisions regarding care and access to children is based on same. In addition, the proposed amendments would replace terminology related to “custody ” and “access” with “parenting” time. This is a positive change, as terms referring to custody (i.e. “joint” vs. “shared” custody in particular) confuse many people in my experience and these loaded terms often create unnecessary division between separating parents. Moreover, persons other than spouses may apply for contact orders with the children. This is a positive amendment, which follows recent trends in provincial legislation allowing grandparents and other persons to apply for custody or access to children. (for example, see previous posts here , here and here.)
In addition, the amended Act includes provisions to assist courts with divorces that involve family violence. This recognizes an unfortunate pattern in recent years of increased instances of domestic violence in family law disputes.
There are also provisions in the amended Act that provides a framework for dealing with jurisdiction, where a court in one province is dealing with a parent that removes a child from that province.
While there are many positive amendments to the Act, there are some amendments that simply codify what the common law already is. For example, there are new provisions dealing with the duty of legal advisers to discuss reconciliation and alternatives to court with clients. Most family lawyers likely already discuss these options with their clients. Also, there are new provisions dealing with relocating with a child of marriage. These amendments require a parent wishing to move with a child to notify the other parent “in writing at least 60 days before the expected date of the proposed relocation and set out”:
If the child spends the majority of time with the moving parent, then the onus shifts to the responding parent to establish why relocation would not be in the best interests of the child. At paragraphs 26-48 in Gordon v. Goertz,  2 SCR 27, 1996 CanLII 191 (SCC), the preeminent case regarding mobility in Canada, the Supreme Court dealt with arguments for and against a presumption in favour of the moving parent. On the one hand, the Court cited the following arguments in favour of this presumption:
- the principal residence of the child is a normal incident of custody and the court should accordingly defer to the custodial parent (para 34);
- the personal freedom of the custodial parent requires that he or she be permitted to decide where to live (para 34);
- would make outcomes of variation applications more predictable (para 34);
The Court deals with each of these arguments in succession and ultimately concludes that if Parliament wished that decisions would be made in this way, it would have codified same in the Divorce Act (as it has now): “Had Parliament wished to impose general rules at the expense of individual justice, it could have done so.” (para 38). The Court further notes at paragraph 38 that a presumption in favour of a custodial parent would do little to minimize conflict. Indeed, it may do the opposite and increase conflict.
Between paragraphs 40-48, the Court considered arguments against the presumption in favour of custodial parents in mobility cases:
- the child’s best interests may no longer be protected or advanced through the earlier order (para 40);
- presumption should as matter of principle be introduced in all matters involving variation? (para 41);
- Parliament placed a duty on deciding best interests of children on the judge, not the custodial parent (para 42);
- could render inquiry more technical and adversarial than necessary (para 43);
- Most importantly, presumption could impair the inquiry into the best interests of the child … in favour of parent’s wishes (para 44);
This final argument against the presumption is the most concerning, as the proposed amendments may unnecessarily complicate mobility cases by focussing too much attention on the parents rather than the children. As the Supreme Court stated in Goertz, supra: “But to begin from the premise that one parent has the prima facie right to take the child where he or she wishes may unduly deflect the focus from the child to its parents.”
Time will only tell what kind of impact these amendments will have, or whether they are simply codifying trends that already exist in cases across Canada. However, as with all legislation, it will be incumbent on lawyers to pay attention to how these changes are interpreted and implemented in various jurisdictions across the country. These amendments appear to be a reality and are likely to come into force in the not-too-distant future. Therefore, we will continue to review the proposed amendments and would be happy to answer any questions you may have regarding same.