National Post

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Friday, May 07, 1999

Divorce law changes find favour with many
Increased rights for Dads

Chris Cobb
Ottawa Citizen

Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press / Senator Anne Cools denies reports that the joint Senate-Commons Committee on Joint Child Custody and Access is biased at a November, 1998, news conference in Ottawa, while Roger Gallaway, a Liberal MP who co-chaired the committee, looks on.

Tom Hanson, The Canadian Press / Anne McLellan, the federal Justice Minister, will release a plan Monday that is expected to lead to changes in three child-related areas of the Divorce Act: custody, access, and support payments.

OTTAWA - Father and grandparent groups are ecstatic -- but a little cautious -- at the prospect of the federal government changing Canada's divorce law.

"I'm thrilled," said Joan Brooks, a grandparent activist, yesterday. "I hope it comes soon so another person won't have to die without being allowed to say goodbye to their grandchildren."

The federal cabinet has approved a set of controversial recommendations from a parliamentary committee that could give mothers and fathers the legal right to equal roles in raising their children -- and also allow grandparents to apply for access.

Of the grandparents denied access to their grandchildren, said Ms. Brooks, 70% are paternal grandparents.

Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, will release a plan Monday that is expected to lead to changes in three child-related areas of the 30-year-old Divorce Act: custody, access, and support payments.

According to opinion polls, an overwhelming number of Canadians favour increased rights for fathers who want to be involved in the raising of their children. Support is particularly high among younger adults, many of whom are children of divorced parents, and in one survey was as high as 97%.

Danny Guspie, president of the national group Shared Parenting, said yesterday the cabinet's approval of the committee's recommendations is encouraging.

"A lot of people would prefer it happen tomorrow so they can stop paying lawyers," said Mr. Guspie.

"It's excellent news and long overdue, but we recognize that this is the beginning of another political process. The next part is likely to be a struggle, but we intend to see it through."

The joint Senate-Commons Committee on Joint Child Custody and Access, co-chaired by Senator Landon Pearson and MP Roger Gallaway, proved a catalyst for dozens of groups and individuals from coast to coast who appealed for changes to custody and access laws.

"It created a critical political mass that didn't exist before," said Mr. Guspie, "and the government is now hearing the message loud and clear."

The Pearson-Gallaway committee held several months of hearings across Canada. It became known as the Politically Incorrect Committee because of its willingness to hear testimony from men, grandparents, and second wives who claim the existing law is unfair to non-custodial parents -- usually fathers.

Women's shelters and other feminist groups claimed the committee was biased, causing Mr. Gallaway to issue an angry denial and release figures that showed the committee heard from more women's groups.

The report, For the Sake of the Children, said if judges were bound to grant shared parenting rights in disputed divorce, it would eliminate most of the long, drawn-out acrimony that embitters, and often bankrupts, non-custodial parents.

If the committee's concept of shared parenting becomes law, it would not necessarily mean a 50-50 living arrangement, but the law would give both parents an equal say over their child's upbringing.

Nor would one parent be able to deny another access to a son or daughter's medical or school records, as often happens now.

The committee also said that custodial parents who routinely deny legal access to their former spouse should be punished. The law penalizes parents who fail to pay support, but there are no similar provisions to penalize custodial parents who defy court-ordered access.

Sean Cummings, director of Nova Scotia Shared Parenting, said the federal government should craft new law that marginalizes the divorce court system.

"Otherwise, we're no further ahead," he said. "I hope Ms. McLellan makes it clear that shared parenting isn't just a fuzzy concept but an achievable goal that is in the best interests of children."

Mr. Cummings' group is about to start its first community-based dispute resolution session that will last 15 weeks and is aimed at getting divorcing parents to develop a plan for their children outside the court system.

"We want to teach people to co-parent and keep them as far away from the courts as possible," said Mr. Cummings. "It's better for everyone and certainly in the best interests of the children."

Liberal Senator Anne Cools, who was a prime mover in setting up the joint committee, said yesterday that shared parenting "is an idea whose time has come."

"I'm encouraged," she said, "and hope the process doesn't take too long. My new motto is: Two Parents for 2000."

Other recommendations in report include:

- Elimination of supervised visitation without clear evidence of violence.

- Mandatory 90-day notice if one parent wishes to move a significant distance from the other.

- If one parent moves, an adjustment in support payments, if necessary, to allow the other parent to travel to visit the children or have children visit.

"Children do not ask their parents to divorce," said the report. "What they did speak about was the disruption in their lives and the severe emotional distress that accompanied their parents."

(Each link opens a new window)

  • Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access
    Contains minutes of all meetings.
  • The Children's Voice
    Advocates the dismantling of the adversarial system in Canadian family law.
  • FACT
    Fathers Are Capable Too advocacy page.
  • Selected Statistics on Canadian Families and Family Law
    November 1997 study compiled by the Department of Justice.
  • Joel Miller's Family Law Centre
    A large Canadian-based site with comprehensive links to family law guidelines and legislation.
  • Status of Women Canada
    Federal government agency mandated to promote gender equality.

  • Copyright Southam Inc.