Mr. Speaker, I will first thank the hon. member for Surrey Centre for focusing on the question of violence and how this bill would allow us to address that. I, on the other hand, will be taking a more general overview of this legislation, which I am incredibly proud of.
As we know, the first substantial update to Canadian family law in 20 years is occurring. Bill C-78 represents a landmark in strengthening and enshrining the best interests of the child and would make federal family law more responsive to the modern-day needs of Canadian families. Family law, as has been noted by all of the speakers today, is both complex and broad and as a result, there are significant gaps and inefficiencies, which existing laws have not adequately addressed. Bill C-78 seeks to remedy these gaps through a wide-ranging series of common-sense adjustments.
Today I will focus on six key elements of Bill C-78: strengthening the best interests of the child provisions, enshrining primary consideration into family law, important changes to terminology, modernizing the Divorce Act, creating contact orders and setting new relocation guidelines.
Allow me to start with the best interests of the child test. The best interests of the child test has been a fundamental part of family law in Canada and in many other countries for decades. Under the Divorce Act, courts must consider only a child's best interests when making decisions about who may care for or make decisions about a child. The Divorce Act, however, gives surprisingly little guidance regarding this test.
In 1998, the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access called for the Divorce Act to include a list of criteria considered to be in the best interests of the child. Many others have added to this call, including academics, child advocates and the Canadian Bar Association. With Bill C-78, our government is answering their calls and taking important steps to address existing gaps and inefficiencies in the family law system.
The proposed criteria for the best interests of the child would emphasize critical elements of a child's life. They include a child's stage of development, ties to loved ones, cultural identity, and personal views and preferences. However, the list is not closed or exhaustive. If a particular factor in a child's life is especially relevant—for example, if the child has medical needs or participates in competitive sporting events—courts could consider these factors where appropriate and relevant.
Adding definitional certainty to the best interests of the child test in the Divorce Act promotes children's interests. It also promotes another one of the bill's key goals: improving access to justice. In some Canadian jurisdictions, over three-quarters of family law litigants are self-represented. Also, a list of best interests of the child criteria in the Divorce Act would help parents better understand their legal responsibilities. It would assist them to better frame their negotiations on arrangements for their children and more often come to agreements outside the court system. Alternatively, if parents cannot agree on their own, this clarity would help self-represented litigants to better frame their arguments in legal proceedings.
Allow me now to move to the second point, which is primary consideration. The reference to “primary consideration” is crucial to the values embodied in Bill C-78. Emphasizing primary consideration would ensure that courts prioritize a child's physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being. Courts would weigh all other criteria in regard to this primary consideration. Doing so would ensure that the best interests of the child remain paramount in protecting families from the negative outcomes often related to separation and divorce.
I will move to the third point, updates to terminology. Bill C-78 would make important and, frankly, long-overdue changes in family law terminology. “Custody” and “access” are now archaic legal terms.
The term “custody” traces its origins to property law, which for hundreds of years has essentially treated children as possessions. The term “access”, meanwhile, refers to a right to use or pass over property. This is not how we should describe responsibilities for children in 2018. In addition, litigation over “custody” and “access” has created additional labels whereby custodial parents are viewed as winners of parenting disputes and access parents the losers. Bill C-78 would move away from such confrontational language, as Alberta, B.C. and several international jurisdictions have done.
Going to the issue of modernizing the Divorce Act, Bill C-78 would replace orders for custody and access in the Divorce Act with parenting orders. A parenting order addresses parenting time and decision-making responsibility for each parent. Specifically, “parenting time” refers to the time a child spends in a parent's care. This includes all time when a parent is responsible for a child, even when the child is at school. Each parent would have as much parenting time as is consistent with the best interests of the child.
On the other hand, “decision-making responsibility” refers to making important decisions on issues such as health, education, language, religion and significant extracurricular activities. BillC-78 would allow the courts to allocate this responsibility to one or both parents, or, alternatively, to divide elements between the parents.
Furthering the goal of improving access to justice, the bill includes a parenting plan provision, referring to agreements between parents that sets out a road map for the care of the child moving forward. The bill encourages courts to incorporate a parenting plan that is in the child's best interest. This provision recognizes that parents are generally best placed to make decisions about their child.
Moving to the fifth element, Bill C-78 also proposes a contact order, in keeping with the best practices already established by several provincial courts. Contact orders carve out time in a child's schedule with a person other than a parent, such as a grandparent. I would like to clarify that a contact order would not usually be necessary in order for grandparents and other loved ones to spend time with a child. It would only be necessary where, because of conflict, parents do not agree to let grandparents or other loved ones spend time with the child. In such cases, Bill C-78 would allow courts to make contact orders. These orders could help preserve a child's relationship with his or her loved ones, where appropriate. As with parenting orders, courts would make a contact order if it is in the best interest of the child.
Finally, the issue of relocation has challenged parents, lawyers, and courts for many years. Relocation involves moving a child after separation and divorce. It is one of the most litigated family law issues in existence. In a 2016 survey of lawyers and judges, for example, over 98% of respondents indicated that disputes are harder to settle when relocation is involved. Bill C-78 creates relocation guidelines to address this conflict. Parents would now be required to give notice if they want to relocate either themselves or their children. An assessment would be conducted using best interest criteria when considering such a request. These would include factors such as the reasons for relocation, the impacts of relocation on the child, and how reasonable the relocation request is.