Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-78. The bill would amend three different acts and modernizes divorce proceedings. There is much in the bill that I am very pleased to see, however, as with any bill, there is room for improvement. I hope that my hon. colleagues across the way will be willing to hear and implement helpful suggestions in the same spirit of co-operation that the bill recommends for divorce proceedings.
Before I go any further, I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Edmonton Griesbach.
Much has changed in the legal realm over the past 30 years, including a growing understanding of the impact that our current legal framework for divorce has on children and their parents. That understanding has led courts toward a less adversarial and more co-operative framework for divorce proceedings.
Bill C-78 amends the statute to bring it in line with the prevailing legal thoughts as delineated by our courts. I want to expand on that. Marriage is a societal institution on which our society is built. A key aspect of marriage is the creation of a stable structure in which children can grow and learn. When a marriage dissolves for whatever reason it is important that the welfare of the child be placed in the highest priority. I am pleased to see that Bill C-78 has placed an emphasis on children.
Bill C-78 makes strides toward the recognition of the rights and considerations of children. An example of this change in focus can be found in the adjustments of the language used throughout the process. Bill C-78 does away with the dichotomy of winning custody versus visitation. The current language creates an adversarial situation wherein one parent is defined as the winner of the proceedings, making the other parent the loser of those same proceedings.
Bill C-78 adjusts the focus from a winner-and-loser mentality wherein the child is a prize to be fought for to that of parenting wherein the child is to be protected and cared for. This may seem like an inconsequential change, but the evidence of the past 30 years shows that this is not the case. This is not to say that we can fully understand or predict precisely how these changes will play out in the emotionally fraught experience of a divorce.
Nevertheless, this is a positive step toward the protection of children. While clearly changing terminology is only one step along the path, the change of language denotes an underlying change in the framework of a divorce proceeding.
This is further advanced by the emphasis placed on the use and encouragement of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to avoid costly and damaging litigation. Litigation over children is costly, hurtful and often very damaging for children.
I mentioned before that divorces are emotionally fraught proceedings. Nowhere is this more evidenced than in litigation over children. Often parents, faced with the prospect of losing the adversarial contest delineated in the current statute, resort to litigation.
Rarely is this in the best interests of the child. ln fact, I am sure that many of us can point to examples within our own spheres of friendship and family wherein children have become pawns in the litigation process by parents who unwittingly acted against their own children's best interests.
Furthermore, as a Conservative, I am uncomfortable with the thought of a court deciding the best interests of a child between two opposed parents. While it may at times be necessary, I believe we can all agree that it ought to be a last resort rather than a first option. I believe it is far better if the parents work together to come to an arrangement that properly addresses the concerns, rights and responsibilities of each parent while protecting the rights and considerations of the child or children.
For this reason, I applaud Bill C-78 for the move away from exposing children to litigation and instead directing the proceedings to alternative dispute mechanisms. These mechanisms may include counsellors, mediators, mental health experts and parenting experts.
The dispute resolution mechanisms require parents to work together for the good of their children and head off potential adversity by placing the welfare of the child as the goal rather than winning custody of that child. This results in the parents being in a position of working together rather than on opposing sides. However, I also have a concern that Bill C-78 perhaps does not address this to the degree that it could.
As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate the focus that this act places on alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, as they create a co-operative framework rather than an adversarial one. However, I believe it should be clear to everyone that divorces are often, despite best efforts, adversarial and emotionally charged. One or both parents could and often do choose to proceed directly to litigation in order to win. As positive a step as the revised language in the introduction of the dispute mechanism is, it is not enough to address this issue.
I believe the government considered this issue while drafting Bill C-78, as it put in place the requirement for legal professionals to encourage clients to use the alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Nevertheless, I would argue that this amounts to slightly more than a “requirement to inform”. While it is sure to make a difference, there will be many cases where one or both parents write off resolution mechanisms immediately without a second thought.
Would my colleagues on the other side consider the possibility of including arbitration as a clearly defined provision within the dispute resolution options? Having this in place would allow the courts to have more leeway in requiring that the divorcing parties go through a resolution process before resorting to litigation. At the least, I would encourage the justice committee to consider this issue to ensure that the processes put in place would indeed be as effective as intended.
Another concern I have is with the lack of a default position wherein both parents share equal parental responsibility. Critics of this bill point to results of research within the social sciences, which suggests equal shared parenting as the best outcome for children in a divorce proceeding. Of course, this may not always be ideal, which is why it would certainly have to be rebuttable. However, as a default position, it would require disproving in order to be changed. Given what we know from the social sciences, I believe that adding an assumption of equal shared parenting is worth serious consideration at the committee stage of this bill and worthy of some discussion.
I would like to pause for a moment here to reiterate that my criticisms of this bill, if my concerns can even be called that, come from a place of goodwill.
As I mentioned earlier in my remarks, and as so many others have stated, this bill is the first major amendment to the Divorce Act in 30 years, and indeed only the second amendment in 50 years. I believe it is very important that we get this right, as it will likely be the divorce framework for many years to come.
There are many other points that I could address about this bill. Unfortunately, I know that I am out of time. Instead, what I will say is that I am pleased to support this bill through to committee, where I hope it is closely reviewed and ardently debated, and where I hope to see my concerns addressed.