Family law touches the lives of more Canadians than any other areas of law. Despite this fact, the family court system is often out-of-touch with the realities for many families whose lives significantly change as the result of separation and divorce. Statistics show that over two million children are living in divorced or separated families. In family law, a child's best interests is the top priority when making parenting decisions. Effective March 1, 2021, there will be significant changes to the Divorce Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. 3 (2nd. Supp.) being the federal legislation that governs spouses being two persons who are married to each other upon separation and divorce. The court will now recognize that each child is different and each family is unique. There is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. This blog will provide an overview of some of the most significant changes to the Divorce Act.
The updated Divorce Act encourages spouses, parents, and extended family to look beyond the court system to resolve disputes about child support, spousal support, and parenting issues that often arise after separation. Resolving disputes outside of court is frequently referred to as alternative dispute resolution and can include a combination of approaches to resolve conflict and disputes including negotiation, collaborative family law, mediation, and arbitration. Lawyers will now be required to inform and encourage clients to resolve matters outside of court unless the circumstances make it clear that it would be inappropriate, such as where family violence exists or there is unequal bargaining power.
Changes to language to include parenting time, decision-making, and contact
There is a shift in language to a more child-focused approach to describe parenting arrangements. The language of "custody" and "access" have been replaced with language such as "decision-making responsibility" for a child and "parenting time". The term "contact order" will also be introduced to describe the contact time a third-party who is not a spouse wishes to see a child such as extended family including a grandparent. These changes make the law more child-focused, with a greater emphasis on the actual tasks of parenting. The new approach uses "parenting orders" to replace orders for custody and access under the Divorce Act.
A parenting order sets out each parent's "decision-making responsibilities", which refers to making important decisions on behalf of a child, and "parenting time." Both parents could have parenting time, depending on each child's best interests. The new wording is neutral and emphasizes that both parents will be caring for their child when the child is with each parent. These concepts remove the notion that there is one primary caregiver for children, and the resulting frequent request to be classified as a "primary caregiver" in a court order or separation agreement. This neutral wording also reinforces the idea that there are no "winners" or "losers" in decisions about parenting arrangements in an adversarial court context.
Court orders that were issued and obtained prior to March 1, 2021 will not have to be changed to reflect the new language. After March 1, 2021, any party seeking to obtain or change a court order will need to use this new language. However, many family law lawyers and judges have previously used this language for quite some time in separation agreements, court orders, and in out-of-court settlements including mediation and collaborative family law.
New responsibilities for parents
Parents will have several express and expanded duties in the Divorce Act, which include:
Best interests of the child takes priority
The best interests of the child will now be the only consideration for the court when making a parenting order. When considering factors, the court's primary consideration must be the child's physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being, as outlined at s. 16(2) of the Divorce Act.
A review and determination of the best interests of a child will now include:
Parenting time must be consistent with the best interests of the child
The principle that wherever possible there should be "maximum contact" between a child and each parent that is consistent with the child's best interests has now been replaced with a new section being s. 16(6) of the Divorce Act. In allocating parenting time, the court shall now give priority to the principle that a child should have as much time with each spouse/parent as is consistent with the best interests of the child.
Family violence concerns are expanded
The Divorce Act now includes a new section dealing with family violence. Courts will have to take family violence into account. Before making parenting, contact, or support orders, courts will need to consider any other proceedings or orders involving any of the parties. This section is very important because it makes it clear that family violence does not have to be a criminal offence or to be established beyond a reasonable doubt. It also states that the family violence list is not exhaustive and includes exposure to children — either as victims or witnesses.
Section 2(1) of the Divorce Act defines family violence as:
any conduct, whether or not the conduct constitutes a criminal offence, by a family member towards another family member, that is violent or threatening or that constitutes a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour or that causes that other family member to fear for their own safety or for that of another person — and in the case of a child, the direct or indirect exposure to such conduct — and includes:
(a) physical abuse, including forced confinement but excluding the use of reasonable force to protect themselves or another person;
(b) sexual abuse;
(c) threats to kill or cause bodily harm to any person;
(d) harassment, including stalking;
(e) the failure to provide the necessaries of life;
(f) psychological abuse;
(g) financial abuse;
(h) threats to kill or harm an animal or damage property; and
(i) the killing or harming of an animal or the damaging of property.
Supervision in the context of parenting orders
Section 16.1(8) of the Divorce Act addresses the issue of supervision in the context of parenting orders where the transfer of a child between parents or a third-party must be supervised and/or that parenting time must be supervised.
Changes in residence and relocation
There will now be a new framework to review changes in residence and relocation which includes written notice of changes to residence and relocations between the spouses/parents. There is now an expanded view of the best interests of the child criteria for the court to consider, and establishes clear directions and burdens of proof in certain situations. There are exceptions to this rule of notice requirements in situations where there is a risk of family violence and a spouse/parent obtains a court order that notice of a change to a child's residence is waived or modified to provide limited information. In these circumstances, a party can bring an application to the court without the other spouse's knowledge.
"Relocation" has been added as a new term and now refers to a change in residence of the child or person who has parenting time or decision-making responsibility that is likely to have a significant impact on the child's relationship with a person who has:
Each party will now have a responsibility to inform the others that may be affected concerning the relocation of a parent or child at least 60 days before to the proposed move, as stated at Section 16.9(1) of the Divorce Act. Once a notice of relocation is provided to the affected individuals, those parties will have 30 days to object, which objection shall include:
(a) A written statement that the person objects to the proposed relocation;
(b) The reasons for the objection;
(c) The views of the person for the proposal for the exercise of parenting time, decision-making responsibility or contact, as the case may be, that is set out in the notice referred to in subsection 16.9(1); and
(d) Any other information prescribed by the regulations.
If no objection is received within the 30 days of the party giving notice of the relocation the party and the child may relocate provided that there is no existing court order that prohibits the relocation. The burden of proof will be on the party seeking to relocate with the child in circumstances where the child is living with both parents. In circumstances, where the party seeking to relocate has the child in their care the majority of the time, the burden of proof will be on the party objecting to the relocation to prove that the relocation would not be in the best interests of the child.
Best interests of the child expanded in context of relocation
Courts will now be required to order parenting time to each parent based on the child's best interests. The best interests criteria will help the court to tailor parenting arrangements for each child's specific situation. The best interests of the child test has been expanded in the context of the relocation such that a court in reviewing the issue will now have to consider the following:
Studies show that spouses and children are at a much greater risk of living in poverty after a separation and divorce if they do not receive the financial support that they are owed. The updated legislation includes measures to reduce poverty, including:
Making the family court system more accessible and efficient
The focus on conflict and dispute resolution options such as mediation and collaborative law is a powerful first step in moving the Canadian family court system in the right direction towards a wholistic approach for dispute resolution as part of the comprehensive law movement. The new legislation attempts to bring Canada closer to becoming a party to two very important international family law conventions including the 1996 Hague Convention for the Protection of Children and the 2007 Hague Child Support Convention. While a long-term goal, Canada is not yet at the point of being a party to the Convention, but these new changes bring us one step closer to achieving this important goal. Being a party to the Conventions would make it easier to resolve many family law inter-jurisdictional issues when one or more of the parties resides in another country.
A number of new measures in the Divorce Act will surely help to streamline administrative procedures and processes to make the family court system more accessible and affordable. Requirements for lawyers to inform and encourage clients to make effective use of alternative dispute resolution processes to resolve their family law disputes will help to clear the large volume of cases and related wait time to have cases heard in a manner and approach that is less costly and emotionally draining to the parties involved. Studies show that there is greater satisfaction with the outcome of a dispute when parties work together to resolve their dispute out-of-court in an less adversarial manner.
If you believe that you could benefit from assistance in family law or wish to discuss the changes in the Divorce Act in further detail, we invite you to contact an experienced lawyer at our firm for more information about how we may be of assistance.
Aubrey Sherman is the managing partner at Sherman Law LLP in Kitchener, Ontario. His practice focuses on family law, estate planning, and estate administration. The team at Sherman Law LLP in Waterloo Region has over 40 years of experience providing clients with creative and innovative solutions. If you wish to discuss your family law or estate planning matter in further detail, please contact our office to arrange for a consultation. We can be reached by phone at 519-884-0034 or by email.