Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak at third reading stage of Bill C-78, an act to amend the Divorce Act. As a member of the justice committee, I had the benefit of studying the bill in some detail at committee, where we heard from a wide range of stakeholders involved in family law. While there are some aspects of the bill that could be improved upon, and I will address those specific issues in short order, I believe that many aspects of the bill would provide greater clarity and certainty in the law. This, after all, is the first major update of the Divorce Act since it was passed in 1985, and in that regard, it is a timely update indeed.
Before getting into some of the areas where I think the bill falls short, let me start with some of the positives. One positive aspect of the bill is that it contains important measures to better ensure that children are not impacted by conflict and to encourage parties, where appropriate, to resolve their disputes outside the court process. It is important to note the words “where appropriate”. That language is in the legislation, because we know that in not all circumstances is it appropriate to resolve family disputes through negotiation or collaborative law, particularly where there is a history of family violence. However, we know that where it is appropriate, it is more often than not the best possible outcome. Because the court process is adversarial in nature, it increases conflict and it can prolong disputes, and that heightened conflict, of course, can have a profoundly negative impact on children.
We also know that the court process is often inefficient, and it is, indeed, costly. That raises issues of access to justice. More and more Canadians who are resorting to the family court system are self-represented litigants, because they cannot afford legal representation. Often these self-represented litigants do not know their rights. They do not have a good understanding of the law. That creates a number of issues, including from the standpoint of backlogs and delays in the family courts, but more broadly speaking, within our entire justice system. To the degree that we can encourage parties to settle, to go through mediation or negotiation or collaborative law, that is positive, and the bill contains measures in that direction.
A second area where the bill would provide better certainty in the law is through the codification of a wide body of case law that recognizes that in determining custody or access orders, the sole determination should be based on what is in the best interests of the child. The bill sets forth a number of factors a judge would consider in fashioning an order and determining, based on the individual circumstances of the case, what, in fact, was in the best interests of the child. That is entirely appropriate and is consistent with what the family law bar has been asking for. It is consistent with the special joint committee report the House and the Senate undertook in 1998 with respect to custody and child support.
One area that I have some issues with is with respect to relocation, about which I posed a question earlier to the minister. Relocation, for obvious reasons, is one of the most difficult areas of family law when one parent seeks to relocate with that child to another location. Based upon the evidence before the committee from the family law bar, that has not been necessarily made easier by the Supreme Court in the Gordon v. Goertz decision of 1996, which provides a highly discretionary test, based upon the best interests of the child. This has let to uncertainty and, frankly, has increased litigation around relocation matters.
The bill seeks to provide certainty by establishing a three-way split with respect to which parent bears the burden of establishing that the relocation is in the best interests of a child. In that regard, the bill provides that when a child has substantially equal time with both parents, then the burden falls on the party seeking to relocate. On the other end of the spectrum, where a child is with the relocating parent the vast majority of time, the burden would fall to the other parent. Then, finally, where there are cases in between those two spectrums, neither parent would bear the burden.
This approach is consistent with the legislation that was passed in the province of Nova Scotia in 2013. There was some evidence before the committee that it was working relatively well, that judges were not having a difficult time sorting out which person or group would fall into the three categories.
However, that being said, while it is laudable that the government is seeking to provide some clarity in the face of Gordon v. Goertz and some greater certainty, I have some concern that this may create some new uncertainty. In that regard, it was raised before committee, I believe by Professor Bala, a well-respected expert in family law, that by using the term “a substantially equal time“ that it might imply or might not imply shared custody with the requisite 40% threshold. Needless to say, it is new language. It has not been tested. It will be litigated,. Therefore, that is something to monitor.
Second, I have some concern about the appropriateness of a three-way split. Again, there was some evidence before the committee, and it is a view that I share, that from the standpoint of fairness and the standpoint of achieving what this legislation seeks to achieve, which is to do what is in the best interests of the child, that as a general rule, the burden should fall on the parent seeking to relocate to establish that it is in the best interests of the child, save for those circumstances where the child does spend the vast majority of his or her time with the relocating parent.
Having regard for the fact that unless the child is an infant, relocation does have, in the normal course, a significant impact on the everyday life of that child with respect to having to go to a new school, make new friends and adjust to a community, not to mention the impact it can have on the relationship with the other parent, who might have access or custody arrangements. It can often be a major disruption. From that standpoint, it would seem more appropriate that, as a general rule, the burden fall on the relocating party.
Then there are some technical issues with the notice requirements. I alluded to one of the concerns I had when I posed a question of the minister. One of the concerns with respect to notice is that the legislation would provide that a parent need only send a letter or some relatively informal notice to the non-relocating party.
At committee, Lawrence Pinsky, who is the past chair of the family law section of the Canadian Bar Association, among others, raised questions about the appropriateness of that form of notice. It seemed to Mr. Pinsky, and it seems to me, that it could unintentionally create situations where one parent would say that he or she had sent notice and the other parent would say that he or she did not receive notice. In the meantime, the parent who claimed the notice had been sent notice may have relocated with that child. What does one do in those circumstances?
In such a circumstance, it may be that the other parent might not be able to have access and custody for which he or she is entitled pursuant to an order. Is the other parent in contempt of that order? That seems to be an aspect of the bill that needs to be re-evaluated, with a very minor amendment when it goes to the Senate, since we were not able to address it at committee.
Then there is the issue of the 30-day response period; 60 days to provide notice of a relocation and 30 days to provide a response. Thirty days is problematic for individuals who may be in remote and northern communities and might not have easy access to a lawyer. It could be problematic for persons who may be disadvantaged or unfamiliar with the court process, maybe who have never retained a lawyer before, or who might perhaps be unable to afford retaining a lawyer and then find themselves in a position where an application to respond has to be prepared. There might be some significant barriers for many groups of Canadians. That is a concern.
Then there is the whole issue of rushing into court. Effectively, the only recourse for parents who are not relocating and who receive that notice is to file an application in court objecting to the relocation. That is inconsistent with one of the key objectives of the bill, which is to encourage parties, where possible, to settle disputes out of court. In most circumstances, someone who is relocating likely will have thought about that relocation long before he or she provides 60 days' notice. By contrast, the party who is not relocating, more often than not, may only learn of it upon receiving notice, in which that parent has 30 days to respond.
That is problematic inasmuch as it might take one some time to absorb what that relocation means, how it impacts custody or access arrangements and prohibits the ability of the parties to negotiate and approach the relocation in a collaborative way and avoid litigation on that issue. It is why I brought forward an amendment, consistent with evidence from a number of witnesses, to increase the time from a 90-day period to provide notice and a 60-day period to respond, Again, it is a relatively minor amendment that hopefully can be considered in the Senate since it was not adopted when it was studied at the justice committee. It is one that could have a profound impact on many families.
I was disappointed that the bill did not recognize the fact that in most circumstances, it is desirable to maintain a shared parenting relationship. That it is not to say that it is appropriate in all cases. We know, particularly in situations where there is family violence, that it is not. However, it does not make sense to remove a perfectly fit parent from having as much access and time to spend with his or her child, and yet we know that does happen every day. The government's response, I suspect, will be that shared parenting is not consistent with this legislation and it rejects the notion of shared parenting because the legislation is focused exclusively on the best interests of the child.
I agree wholeheartedly that any issue relating to custody or access should be based exclusively on what is in the best interests of the child. However, the fact is that in many circumstances, what is in the best interests of the child is to maintain that shared parenting relationship. We know that from common sense life experience and a wide body of social science evidence to back that up. That is why, when the Senate studied custody and access in 1998, it recommended the incorporation of factors that a court should consider with respect to the best interests of a child, which the government incorporated in the bill. One of the factors was the benefit to a child of a shared parenting relationship.
With that, on the whole, the bill gets a lot of things right. There is a fair bit of consensus among the family law bar and other actors involved in family law, divorce, separation, etc., but there are areas where there is room for improvement. I hope there will be some further consideration on how to improve the bill when it goes to the Senate.