Globe and Mail

Who is acting for the children?

The Justice Minister is curiously reluctant to amend the Divorce Act

Wednesday, May 12, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Justice Minister Anne McLellan is a cautious woman. Nobody would ever hang the old proverb "Haste makes waste" around her neck. She likes to consult broadly, weigh issues carefully and co-ordinate with the provinces and the territories before introducing overlapping legislative changes. All well and good -- judicious, even. But there comes a time to act, and that point has been reached with regard to amending the Divorce Act.

The minister is proceeding so cautiously that the government's mandate may conveniently expire before she tables her amendments. It is not our intention to impute her motives; nevertheless, her hesitation brings to mind the strength of the feminist lobby and the government's consistent reluctance to ensure that the law is fair not only to both parents, but to children, grandparents and other interested parties regarding access, custody and support payments.

Earlier this week, Ms. McLellan finally responded to "For the Sake of the Children," the report presented in December by the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access. The committee was struck in 1997 as a compromise after the Senate refused to pass child-support legislation that seemed to be favouring custodial parents, who are mostly women, by imposing tough and possibly arbitrary penalties on parents who are delinquent with their support payments -- the vast majority of whom are men.

The committee held hearings across the country, heard 500 witnesses and made almost 50 recommendations for a child-centred approach to divorce and custody in which children's wishes must be heard when custody and access provisions are being made. Instead of parents' rights, the committee stressed responsibilities and urged separating partners to develop co-parenting plans -- with the court's help if necessary -- and engage in joint decision-making about health, education and social activities.

After reviewing the report for five months, Ms. McLellan has called for more consultation with the provinces and territories and more research on custody and access issues -- all in pursuit of developing "reform proposals" for yet another round of public consultations with the results to be reported to Parliament in May of 2002. The minister is well-advised to consult the provinces because many aspects of family law fall within their jurisdiction, but surely the process can be speeded up. Her deadline is three years away and five years since the joint committee was struck. By that point, some of the children who have suffered under the current custody and access provisions may be old enough to have children of their own.

Amending the Divorce Act will not affect the lives of parents who never married in the first place. Nor will it magically resolve disputes between parents determined to use their children as ballistic weapons in their own ongoing hostilities. But shortening the time line for introducing legislative amendments will show that the government truly does want to put children's interests before the demands of warring spouses. This is neither the time nor the place for delay.

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