Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-78, the government's family law bill.
As other hon. members have alluded to in this debate, issues relating to family law, by and large, fall within the parameters of provincial jurisdiction. However, section 91, class 26 of the Constitution Act provides that it is within the jurisdiction of Parliament to make laws with respect to marriage and divorce.
In order to discuss Bill C-78 and what it seeks to do in terms of updating family law and divorce legislation in this country, it would be helpful at the outset to provide some context to how divorce law in this country has evolved. Indeed, the Divorce Act is a relatively new piece of legislation. It was passed in 1968, only 50 years ago.
Prior to the passage of the Divorce Act in 1968, this country had a patchwork of laws with respect to divorce. In some provinces, there were no divorce laws. As a result, it was necessary for couples to seek a private act of this Parliament in order to obtain a divorce. In other provinces, divorce was possible if it could be established that there had been some wrongdoing in the relationship.
Fast forward to 1968 when Parliament did pass legislation to provide uniform laws with respect to divorce. The Divorce Act of 1968 remained in place until it was updated in 1985, which is when Parliament made some very significant reforms to divorce and family law. Among the changes made in the 1985 Divorce Act was to provide a single ground upon which divorce could be obtained, namely, when there was a breakdown in the relationship. A breakdown in the relationship could be established based upon a number of different criteria, including one year of separation of the couple, or if it were established that there was adultery in the relationship or physical or mental abuse.
Since Parliament took steps in 1985 to update divorce law in Canada, over the last 30-plus years there has been very little change that has been made to update family law in this country. I have to say, I was born in 1984, one year before the Divorce Act was updated, so 1985 was a long, long time ago. Canadian society has evolved considerably in these last 33 or 34 years, including the structure of families and, unfortunately, the increased prevalence of divorces and marital breakdown. It is about time that Parliament moved forward to consider a comprehensive update to the Divorce Act.
In terms of the substance of this bill, let me say that we are open to looking at it carefully. On the surface, it would seem that this bill contains a number of positive measures. Among the key substantive aspects of this bill is the updating of terminology, encouraging families to settle disputes outside of the court, improving child support enforcement, and preserving the well-being of impacted children. All of these measures, on the surface, appear to be a step in the right direction.
In terms of the road to reform, it has been, as I mentioned, a long time coming. We saw a very thorough review undertaken by Justice Cromwell, back in 2013. One of the key recommendations from the Cromwell committee was the need to update terminology. Right now, under the Divorce Act, the terminology is quite adversarial, and that is not helpful as families deal with what is often the most difficult and challenging time couples can face when they are in a situation of marital breakdown.
Among the changes Bill C-78 would make would be to change the language to make it less adversarial, in accordance with the recommendations of the Cromwell committee. In what ways would the bill make the language in the Divorce Act less adversarial? For example, it would replace the term “custody” with the term “contact” and the term “access” with the term “parenting”.
Another aspect of the bill is that it would encourage parties to try to settle disputes through mediation or alternative dispute resolution. Far too much money is spent in our courts, and to the degree that families can settle their marital matters outside of court, outside of what is, by definition, an adversarial system, is a step in the right direction. Of course, as I alluded to, it would codify what is at this time a wide body of case law and have regard for the best interests of the child.
I spoke to an acquaintance of mine, who is a judge, and he told me that upon being appointed, one of the challenges was to get up to speed on different aspects of the law that he had never practised. For example, he had never practised criminal law before, so he certainly had to spend a lot of time getting up to speed. He said that aside from the academic side and getting up to speed on different aspects of the law, what he found to be the most difficult was trying to settle disputes when children were involved in terms of making orders respecting parenting, for example, because so often, he is making a decision that is going to profoundly affect the parents, the family and the child. I tell that anecdote to underline the gravity, the importance and the impact these changes would have.
As I say, we will study the bill at committee. I look forward to hearing from a wide array of witnesses and to exploring possible amendments.