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Tuesday, May 11, 1999

McLellan blinded by focus on violence

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Only once in her 30-page response to the Special Joint Committee does Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, declare that "it is important to send a message."

But the strong language doesn't refer to children's right to a relationship with both parents, to disenfranchised non-custodial parents, or to estranged grandparents.

Rather, we're told the "Government of Canada strongly believes that it is important to send a message that all aspects of the family law system must take into account incidents of family violence . . ."

After cross-country hearings, hundreds of agonized presentations, and thousands of grief-stricken depositions, the same feminist lobby that already bears much of the responsibility for our current family law mess has once again prevailed.

Well-organized, funded by tax dollars, and afforded automatic credibility by much of the media, this lobby doesn't just believe its views with respect to male-against-female domestic violence should be taken into account, but that all other considerations are trivial by comparison.

Although violence affects only a small minority of divorcing couples, women's groups made violence their focus when they addressed the joint committee.

Had Ms. McLellan decided to do something substantive about the family law inequities most Canadians have told pollsters need fixing, this lobby would have insisted all the way through the next federal election campaign that Liberals were ignoring the real issues.

So instead, the government has produced a document that talks about "the need for further research," for more discussions with experts, and still more public consultation.

Of the 48 recommendations included in the joint committee report, Ms. McLellan responded specifically to only 16 -- one-third -- of them.

Although the joint committee endorsed the notion of shared parenting -- as opposed to the winner-takes-all sole custody arrangements that now predominate -- the most Ms. McLellan will say is that the concept "has promise." The government must ensure, she says, "that we understand the impact such a change would have on the family law system" before it does anything rash.

While the committee recommended "that parties applying to a court for a parenting order must file a proposed parenting plan with the court," Ms. McLellan says this, too, needs further study.

Although the committee advised that a preamble be inserted into the Divorce Act "containing the principle that divorcing parents and their children are entitled to a close and continuous relationship with one another," the justice minister says the approaches of other jurisdictions should be "examined further" in this regard.

As far back as March, 1995, a review of the Ontario civil courts found that there is among the public "a pervasive belief that the system plays havoc with people's lives and financial resources," engendering "an enormous sense of frustration and anger."

The report, prepared for the attorney-general, observed: "We were told on more than one occasion that perjury in these [family law] affidavits is rampant."

There was, said the report's authors, a "perception that such perjury goes unpunished."

Those who testified before the joint committee across the country also complained that nothing is being done about widespread perjury in divorce matters. But Ms. McLellan still has no strategy for tackling a well-recognized problem.

To be fair, Ms. McLellan's document does declare that "the family law system must discourage the estrangement of parents from their children" and that false allegations of abuse in custody disputes "must be discouraged."

But until her government finds the courage to invoke concrete measures, including tangible incentives for parents to co-operate with one another, real changes are unlikely to occur.

In 1997, the Justice Ministry legislated harsh penalties for non-custodial parents (usually fathers) who fail to pay child support. But two years and all those public hearings later, it is unable to muster even harsh language where custodial parents (usually mothers) who violate court-ordered access are concerned.

Denying a child access to a loving parent is, in the view of the justice minister, neither unacceptable nor immoral -- not to mention illegal. It isn't something about which "a strong message" must be sent.

Rather, access denial is "a complex problem," according to the minister's response.

"There may be many different, relevant reasons for non-compliance with an access order, and these reasons should be considered with respect to the use of penalties," reads Ms. McLellan's document.

A more egregious double standard is difficult to imagine. That U.S. studies have determined that significant numbers of deadbeat dads are in arrears not because they are willfully irresponsible, but because they are impoverished, was never acknowledged by this same ministry when two years ago it authorized the revocation of driver's licences and passports for non-payment of child support.

Following those changes to the Divorce Act, people whose lives have been ravaged by the current system took comfort in the fact that a joint committee would be struck to address their concerns.

In the view of that committee, there "is clearly a need for some dramatic revisions in the way parenting arrangements are decided following separation and divorce."

What remains lacking is the political will to confront those people who don't believe the right of the average child to two parents after divorce is anywhere near as important as protecting a small number of women from violent ex-spouses.

Copyright Southam Inc.