Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to speak to Bill C-78 and the significant contribution it would make to improve the accessibility and efficiency of the family justice system.
As mentioned, federal family laws have not been updated substantially in over 20 years and changes are long overdue. Access to justice is a priority for our government and access to family justice is a key component of achieving that. Costs, delays, and complex procedures can make it difficult for Canadians to have access to justice. Along with the expansion of the unified family courts and sustained funding for family justice services, Bill C-78 is part of our government's commitment to improving access to justice for families going through separation and divorce. Under the pen of retired Supreme Court Justice Cromwell, the action committee on access to justice in civil and family matters stated that early management of legal issues and encouraging informal dispute resolution were key to improving access to justice.
Bill C-78 recognizes the need to improve access to justice and offers guidance, information and tools to help families going through separation and divorce, including people who represent themselves, as well as lawyers and courts involved in family law issues.
Bill C-78 encourages the use of family dispute resolution processes. These are defined as out-of-court processes used by parties to help them resolve their family law disputes. Negotiation, mediation and collaborative law are examples of such processes. These are often less expensive and faster than litigation and allow parents to actively participate in creating arrangements that are in the child's best interests.
Part of the role lawyers play is to ensure that parents who have family law issues have the relevant information on family dispute resolution. Bill C-78 would create a duty for lawyers to tell parents about family justice services that could help them resolve their disputes, and to encourage them to try family dispute resolution where appropriate.
In addition, if the case is before the court, the bill gives judges the option to refer parents to family dispute resolution where available. Bill C-78 also introduces duties for parents involved in a family law matter to try to resolve their issues through a family dispute resolution process where appropriate.
That said, family dispute resolution processes may not be appropriate in all circumstances, including where there is family violence. For this reason, Bill C-78 only encourages the use of these procedures where appropriate. Courts and lawyers must evaluate each of these situations on a case-by-case basis and take into account families' circumstances, including whether there is family violence, before encouraging the use of family dispute resolution. In addition, other service providers, such as certified mediators, play a critical role in screening for family violence and power imbalances in order to promote a fair and equitable process.
There are numerous ways that Bill C-78 would facilitate the resolution of family disputes and help parents reach out of court agreements focused on the best interests of their children. For example, it proposes changes to custody and access language, the definitions in the old version of the act, to use terminology that is more neutral and child focused and reflects the actual tasks of parenting, such as parenting time and other terms used in the act. It also includes a non-exhaustive list of criteria to help determine what is in the child's best interest, as well as criteria to assist parents dealing with relocation issues. This additional information will help parents make informed and child-focused decisions and better understand what the outcome might be if they were to go to court. This in turn is intended to help reduce litigation.
Our government is bringing forward some innovative thinking to help improve the family justice system. There are issues currently determined by courts that are administrative in nature and that could be handled outside of the court. Bill C-78 will expand the range of matters that child support services may address and will allow them to perform tasks currently that were in the sole purview of the court itself.
Many provinces and territories have child support services that recalculate support orders, for instance. Bill C-78 proposes several measures to make these services more efficient. This includes the recalculation of interim child support amounts in Divorce Act orders. In addition, the bill would allow child support services to recalculate child support amounts at the request of a parent, for example, if there were a job loss. Currently, the Divorce Act requires that recalculation be done only at fixed or regular dates.
The bill also includes a new approach allowing for the calculation of initial child support amounts by provincial or territorial child support services, where possible. This will allow administrative services, as opposed to courts, to calculate, based on relevant income information, child support amounts based on child support guidelines.
These proposed additions and improvements to the Divorce Act would make it easier, less costly and less adversarial to determine or recalculate child support amounts.
Changing Divorce Act orders when parties live in different jurisdictions can also be costly and cumbersome for families. Bill C-78 proposes to improve the process to change a support order for parties living in different provinces or territories.
Currently, two courts are involved, a court in the applicant's province that makes a provisional order and a court in the respondent's jurisdiction that confirms the order. The new process would involve only one court and would eliminate the need for the current first stage hearing, thereby saving time and money. Because this new system mirrors that in most provinces and territories, it would also ensure consistency whether interjurisdictional proceedings are conducted under the provincial legislation or under the Divorce Act.
The bill also includes provisions to improve processes in international child support cases. These changes are an essential step for Canada to become party to the 2007 Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance, which was signed in May 2017.
The 2007 convention is an international agreement that provides a low-cost and efficient legal framework for cross-border establishment, modification, recognition and enforcement of family support obligations. It will be of particular interest to Canadian families and children, as it provides a means for a parent to obtain child support from a former spouse living in a different country.
Another way in which Bill C-78 would increase access to justice and improve the efficiency of the family justice system is by amending the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act. This act is used to help parents enforce support. The bill proposes to amend it to permit, in certain limited circumstances, the release of income information when parents do not provide it.
Accurate income information is key to determining fair child support amounts. This change would help to accurately determine child support amounts and enforce support orders, as well as to reduce time spent in court to obtain this information. Proceedings to obtain this information currently take up a lot of court time and resources and this can be expensive for people who are trying to obtain support and is not a good use of family resources.
When this information is given to a court, it would be sealed and kept in a location to which the public has no access, and the court could make any order necessary to protect the confidentiality of the information.
While the bill encourages resolution of matters outside of the court system, there are some matters that require formal court resolution.
Budget 2018 announced funding to expand unified family courts, fulfilling one of the Minister of Justice's mandate letter commitments to Canadians. The family court in my riding of St. John's East has benefited from this.
Unified family courts provide one-stop shopping for the family justice system by combining jurisdiction over all family law matters into one court. They also provide access to a range of family justice services, such as family law information centres and mediation services to help families through a range of family law issues, including separation and divorce and other services.
Funding is essential for the delivery of family justice services which fall within provincial and territorial jurisdiction. In budget 2017 our government committed $16 million per year for family justice services on an ongoing basis. This funding will increase Canadians' access to family justice by supporting provincial and territorial programs and services, such as mediation, parent information, education and support enforcement.
We have to work together to improve the accessibility and the efficiency of the Canadian family justice system. Bill C-78, along with the expansion of unified family courts and sustained funding for family justice services, will help support Canadian families going through separation and divorce and the over two million Canadian children who live in separated or divorced families. This is a great step forward and I trust that the changes we have proposed will bring positive changes to the family justice system.
In closing, I encourage all members of the House to support this legislation, as I do, so we can see it move to committee where it can be studied further.