Madam Chair, I am pleased to talk about Bill C-78, which will have a direct impact on Canadians.
Bill C-78 was introduced on May 22, 2018. I was proud to partake in the deliberations at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which reported on the bill, with amendments, on December 7, 2018. The bill received third reading in the House of Commons on February 2, 2019 and is currently with the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
Bill C-78 is a key milestone in our government's ongoing efforts to improve the lives of Canadian families. To better reflect the current needs of Canadian families, Bill C-78 proposes to advance four key priorities: promoting the best interests of the child, addressing family violence, contributing to poverty reduction and making the family justice system more accessible and efficient.
We listened closely to various points of view expressed by members of the public, family justice professionals and witnesses in response to Bill C-78. During the study, committee members gathered a significant amount of information from over 50 witnesses and received more than 50 briefs representing a broad range of opinions and viewpoints. The committee reviewed the recommendations carefully, and many of them resulted in amendments to Bill C-78.
Bill C-78 takes a child-focused approach. In addition to including a non-exhaustive list of best interest criteria, the bill requires that when determining the best interests of the child, courts give primary consideration to the child's physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being.
The bill also replaces property-based terms, such as “custody” and “access” with terms that best describe the parents' responsibilities for their children.
Some groups have expressed concern about the continued presence of the Divorce Act's “maximum contact” principle. First, I must be clear that the new maximum parenting time principle is not a presumption in favour of any particular allocation of parenting time. It states that children should have as much time with each parent as is consistent with that child's best interests. In most cases, this will be significant time with each. In some cases, such as when there are safety concerns, it may mean very little time or no parenting time for a parent.
Following the committee study, the bill was amended so that the maximum parenting time principle would appear in the part of the Divorce Act that relates to the best interests of the child. The provision's new placement in the act will remind parents and the courts that the time allotted to each spouse must be consistent with the best interests of the child and with the primary consideration, which is the safety and well-being of the child.
Relocation, particularly moving with a child after separation or divorce, is one of the most highly litigated areas in family law. Bill C-78 proposes to introduce a relocation framework that promotes the child's best interests and encourages dispute resolution. Witnesses praised our government's introduction of the relocation provisions in particular.
Bill C-78 originally provided for the non-relocating parent to oppose a move by way of court application. This was to ensure that courts only became involved if there was a genuine disagreement between the parties. We heard from the Canadian Bar Association and the Family Law Association of Nunavut that having to respond through a court application was an unreasonable barrier to access to justice. This is particularly true for families living in the north, who may rely on the schedule of a circuit court.
Amendments to the bill would allow a second approach, the creation of forms that parents would use to give notice of and respond to a proposed relocation. If a non-relocating parent responds by form and the parties cannot come to a resolution, the parent seeking to relocate would have to bring a court application seeking authorization. Requiring that the notice be provided through a form would promote clarity by prompting parents to provide all necessary information in a consistent manner. Allowing for a form to respond to notice would relieve the burden on the non-relocating parent, while still helping to ensure that courts only hear cases in which there is a genuine disagreement between the parties.
The bill also sets out a broad evidence-based definition of family violence under the Divorce Act that will include any conduct that is violent or threatening, constitutes a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, or causes a family member to fear for their safety or the safety of another person. The definition would apply to intimate partner violence and to other types of violence, such as violence against children. In the case of a child, it would also include direct or indirect exposure to such conduct. Bill C-78 makes it clear that courts will be required to consider family violence in determining the best interests of the child.
At the committee, we heard from witnesses who underscored that it can be dangerous for someone fleeing violence to notify other parties of their intent to seek an exemption from the notice of relocation requirements. In response to this concern, Bill C-78 was amended to explicitly provide that parties may apply to a court to waive or change relocation notice requirements without notice to the other party in those rare circumstances.
I want to talk for a minute about one of the objectives of the bill, which is poverty reduction. I note that our government has been focused on poverty reduction for all Canadians, including children, in this case through the Canada child benefit, which has removed 300,000 children from poverty situations, and also seniors, almost a million of whom have been lifted out of poverty by policies of the government that were voted against by the parties opposite.
Families going through separation or divorce are more vulnerable to experiencing poverty. Obtaining fair amounts of child support is a key factor in reducing the risk of child poverty. Bill C-78 includes amendments that will help ensure that financial support is based on accurate and up-to-date income information.
The bill will amend the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act to allow for the search and release of a parent's income information to courts to establish or vary family support. Parents, lawyers and courts have advocated such an amendment for many years, and we are finally getting it done under this bill.
To further help families receive fair child support amounts quickly, Bill C-78 will improve the Divorce Act's process for the establishment and recalculation of child support. The bill will allow provincial child support services, rather than courts, to establish initial child support amounts.
For several decades now, the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada and official language minority communities across the country have been calling for recognition of the right to use either official language in divorce proceedings.
A committee amendment to Bill C-78 will allow parties to file proceedings under the Divorce Act in the official language of their choice. Parties would be able to file proceedings under the Divorce Act, seek an order, be heard, testify and submit evidence in the official language of their choice. They would also have the right to be heard by a judge who speaks their official language, or both official languages in the case of a bilingual matter.
The bill also demonstrates our government's commitment to increasing access to justice and improving the efficiency of the family justice system. For example, the bill's increased focus on family dispute resolution processes will help divert people away from the courts, saving time and resources for cases that require judicial intervention.
Our government recognizes that family dispute resolution may not be appropriate for all families, as may be the case when there has been family violence or high levels of conflict. Bill C-78 was carefully drafted to promote the use of family dispute resolution only when appropriate.
I am thankful for the opportunity to highlight some of the most important proposals in this important bill, Bill C-78, which I believe would make a significant difference in the lives of Canadian families and children. I was pleased to be part of that process at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in making thoughtful amendments to the bill, which I hope will see a speedy passage through the other place and become law in Canada.
With that said, my first question for the minister is as follows. As I have discussed during my remarks, federal family laws in this country have not seen any amendment in over 20 years. This inaction does not reflect societal change. Thanks to data from the 2016 census, we now know that as many as two million Canadian children live in separated or divorced families.
Could the justice minister expand on how the justice department is promoting the best interests of children in a divorce with this legislation?