National Post

Wednesday, November 25, 1998

Minister open to changing Divorce Act likely to change: minister
Report to propose sweeping changes to custody laws

Sheldon Alberts
National Post

Anne McLellan, Canada's justice minister, says she is prepared to change the Divorce Act in a bid to end controversy over child custody laws that often pit the rights of fathers against those of mothers.

But Ms. McLellan plans to tread carefully around the "very difficult, emotional" issue until Ottawa and the provinces study recommendations from a Senate-Commons committee that is expected to propose sweeping changes.

"I'm going to very seriously look at the recommendations and I am open to the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that we will be making amendments to the Divorce Act," she told the National Post. "If it is clear that under our existing law, or the ways in which that law is applied, that the best interests of the child are not always first and foremost, then . . . we will look at what we can do to change that."

The minister's remarks come after a Southam-Compas poll this week showed 70% of Canadians feel the needs of children receive too little attention in divorce courts; 62% feel the needs of fathers are given short shrift. And a series of recent court actions have legal analysts talking about reshaping the institutions of marriage and the family.

Liberal parliamentarians have been locked in an acrimonious debate over the work of the committee on child custody and access, which some feminist groups say has been biased in favour of men.

Many divorced men told the committee during cross-country hearings that custody laws have shut them out of their children's lives and were used as a weapon to level false accusations of abuse.

Despite the high emotions, Ms. McLellan says she will not be drawn into the battle.

"I don't see this as fathers versus mothers . . . I think that's a very negative and very destructive way of looking at this, and we have to do better than that," she said. "What I come back to is the fact that in the difficult circumstances of family breakdown, what is in the best interests of the children."

The committee is expected to table its report in the Commons on Dec. 10, but many of its recommendations have already been leaked to the media.

It is expected to propose the 30-year-old Divorce Act be amended to make "shared parenting" the legal cornerstone of custody. It is also likely to recommend that making false accusations of abuse become a criminal offence.

Ms. McLellan plans to refer the committee's work to a joint federal-provincial working group for study before proposing legislation. She is likely to respond formally by the spring.

Copyright Southam Inc.