Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity today to speak on Bill C-560, an act to amend the Divorce Act with regard to equal parenting and to make consequential amendments to other acts.
The preamble to the bill states a number of objectives, including that of encouraging divorcing parents to take more responsibility for their disputes with less reliance on the adversarial processes.
I would like to focus my remarks on the stated objective of the bill in order to demonstrate how this concept is consistent with our government's current approach to divorce and matrimonial settlements.
We all know that divorce is often a messy and drawn-out process in which both sides have deeply rooted resentments toward one another.
Unfortunately, at times divorce is unavoidable and happens quite frequently in our society. However, rather than turning to the courts and other adversarial processes to find a neat and tidy solution to an otherwise complex and messy situation, our government has taken the approach of encouraging and supporting both sides to find a mutually agreed upon resolution themselves.
In the context of separation and divorce, when parents are able to work together and put their children's needs and interests first, they provide a supportive environment for their children during an often challenging time. This is an important step in allowing these kids to achieve their full potential.
Working together and minimizing conflict are important and necessary goals for the approximately 70,000 married couples who divorce in Canada each year.
While the government cannot support Bill C-560, as it moves away from a strong focus on the best interests of the child, I thought it would be helpful to outline for my colleagues some of the ways in which this government is already promoting the goal of encouraging parents to take more responsibility for the resolution of their disputes.
First, this government contributes funding to a wide range of family justice services that have been shown to support co-operation and minimize conflict.
Second, this government has developed various publications to help families deal with divorce, including a booklet for children to help them understand and cope with their parents' divorce as well as a parenting guide and tools that encourage parents to co-operate with each other and that help them prepare a parenting plan that would best suit the needs of their children.
The phrase “family justice services” refers to all programs and services that meaningfully contribute to the resolution of family law issues. Those to which this government contributes funding include information and resource centres, alternative dispute resolution services, parent and child education programs, and services directed at high-conflict situations.
Here is a brief description of each type.
Information and resource centres offer free information on family law and court procedures. As a general rule, these centres do not give legal advice. However, they give out necessary information and documents, such as court forms, and provide some guidance on the steps in legal proceedings. They also refer families to legal and community resources to help meet their needs.
An alternative dispute resolution process that is widely funded by governments is mediation. A mediator is a neutral third party who helps the parents discuss issues on which they disagree. The mediator does not take sides, but may make suggestions to help the parents communicate better and reach an agreement. The mediator does not replace a lawyer.
Parent education and information programs are usually run by lawyers and social workers. They often work together to help parents understand and cope with the emotional effects of separation and divorce on themselves and their children, deal with some of the challenges of parenting after separation, and learn techniques for communicating better with each other, resolving disputes, and co-parenting. Some of these programs are also available on government websites and in other formats. This helps to make them more accessible to those living in remote areas.
Some provinces and territories have developed special education and counselling programs for children that help them cope emotionally with the breakdown of their family and understand that their parents' divorce is not their fault.
Finally, there are family justice services designed to help in situations in which there are concerns about the safety of children and the other parent. As a key example, service providers, generally with social work experience, supervise visits between a parent and a child, or they may supervise the transfer of a child from one parent to another when there is a high degree of conflict between the parents.
I would like to emphasize that these programs and services are developed and administered by the provinces and territories. As many members are aware, the federal, provincial, and territorial governments share constitutional responsibility for family law, and the administration of justice is a provincial/territorial responsibility. The federal government is responsible for divorce, including custody and support when dealt with as part of the divorce. In all other situations, the provincial and territorial governments are responsible for custody and support.
Since 1985, the federal government has provided funds to provinces and territories to develop and improve services and programs that assist separating and divorcing families. The current funding program entitled the “supporting families fund” has two objectives: one, to contribute to the continued improvement to access to the family justice system; and two, to encourage greater parental compliance with family obligations, notably support and parenting arrangements.
To fulfill these objectives, the fund was recently renewed for three years, until 2017, to provide $15.5 million per year to the provinces and territories for the delivery of family justice services to help parents resolve their issues and comply with their family obligations for the benefit of their children. The fund also provides $500,000 per year to non-governmental organizations to develop targeted family justice information and training resources. By helping to reduce conflict and increase co-operation between parents, these family justice services promote better outcomes for children.
The second way in which this government supports the goals of co-operation and minimizing conflict is to make available on the government website information and other tools that can help children cope with divorce and help parents develop parenting arrangements that respond to the needs of their children.
The government recognizes that children need information as well as adults and has developed What happens next?, a booklet for children between the ages of nine and twelve whose parents are separating or divorcing. It gives them basic explanations of key legal terms and also discusses the emotions they may be feeling. The children's calendar helps children keep track of their schedule and important dates as they move between houses.
The guide entitled Making plans gives parents information about issues they need to address when developing parenting arrangements, including a schedule for the time children will be under the care of each parent. It also suggests processes parents can use to agree on a plan, such as mediation, negotiation, and collaborative law, and provides tips on how to include their child's perspective. This guide promotes agreement between parents by emphasizing the importance of communicating, reducing conflict, and building a co-parenting relationship that focuses on the best interests of the child.
The parenting plan tool is a companion to Making plans. It is a practical guide with sample clauses to help parents develop a written parenting plan setting out their parenting arrangement.
Finally, the federal government worked with our colleagues in the provinces and territories to develop a parenting plan checklist to help parents identify issues to consider when developing a parenting plan.
The need for public legal education and information materials such as these, as well as for family justice services, is widely recognized. Recently, the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, a group broadly representative of leaders across Canada in the field of civil and family justice, and chaired by Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell, emphasized the value of front-end services, such as those family justice services funded by this government, especially those that include “live” help. It noted that:
It is widely recognized that the provision of services early in a dispute helps to minimize both the cost and duration of the dispute and thus to mitigate the possibility of protracted conflict and the corresponding harm to family relationships.
The committee was equally adamant that:
The more that families can effectively take responsibility for the resolution of their own disputes, the better.... This push towards family autonomy...[must be] balanced by a corresponding public obligation to ensure that these families are given appropriate help in doing so.
I want to reassure the House that we take that public obligation seriously. That is why I have taken the time to explain today some of the ways in which we are contributing to high-quality front-end services that support the many Canadian families experiencing family breakdown.
I have highlighted the supporting families fund and the development of public legal education and information materials. Further, the government will review the custody and access provisions of the Divorce Act and, in so doing, will consider how it can further encourage parents to rely less on adversarial processes and focus on the needs of their children.