Ottawa Citizen
Saturday 21 November 1998

Divorced fathers ensured access to children

Child's right to relationship with both parents to be cornerstone of new Divorce Act

Chris Cobb
The Ottawa Citizen

Shared parenting would be the legal cornerstone of the Divorce Act under sweeping changes to be proposed by a parliamentary committee, the Citizen has learned.

In a final report expected to be completed early next week, the joint Senate-Commons Committee on Child Custody and Access will recommend that the federal law be amended to recognize the principle that both parents are equal with respect to children after separation and divorce.

Shared parenting would eliminate the existing "primary-care principle," under which one parent can be awarded sole custody of a child. In all but extraordinary cases, it would mean that both parents have the legal right to access. It would not, however, automatically mean a 50-50 arrangement.

The all-party committee is expected to recommend that judges who rule in separation and divorce cases do so from the principle that it is a child's right to develop a nurturing relationship with both parents -- and the right of both parents to have regular and predictable access to their children.

If the recommendations are adopted by the federal cabinet and parliament, the concept of sole custody would cease to exist in most cases.

Under the recommended amendments to the 30-year-old Divorce Act, one parent would not be able to block another parent from getting information about a son or daughter's schooling or medical treatments -- or from getting information about a child's progress in hockey, baseball or other recreational activity.

Couples will be strongly encouraged to take mediation in which a counsellor will discuss the effects of separation and divorce on the children.

Although shared parenting will be the most important recommendation made by the committee, it is also said to be refining a recommendation aimed at eliminating, or reducing, false accusations of abuse that are often the prelude to acrimonious divorces.

The committee will likely recommend that false accusations of abuse should become punishable under the Criminal Code -- and that courts should not be able to rule in a custody proceeding on the basis of accusations alone, which they now do.

The committee is also expected to recommend:

The committee was due to present its report to Parliament, and Justice Minister Anne McLellan, at the end of this month, but have been granted a delay of about two weeks.

The all-party joint committee, co-chaired by Liberal MP Roger Gallaway and Liberal Senator Landon Pearson, has been dubbed the "Politically Incorrect Committee" because of the number of pro-father submissions it has heard. Feminist groups have accused the committee of being biased in favour of men and of giving men preferential treatment during hearings.

In fact, Mr. Gallaway told a news conference yesterday, the committee heard from 69 women's groups and 58 fathers' groups. "The committee worked long hours," he told the news conference, "and went out of its way to accept groups at the last minute. The committee heard virtually every group or person who wanted to be heard."

Mr. Gallaway and fellow committee member Senator Anne Cools called the news conference to criticize Secretary of State for Status of Women Hedy Fry for allowing her department's Web site to carry links to feminist groups attempting to discredit the committee. One Web site, they said, is encouraging people to say they were at committee hearings when they weren't.

Committee members heard three months of emotional, often controversial, hearings across the country. After the hearings, Mr. Gallaway said the Divorce Act desperately needs amending because it systematically treats non-custodial parents -- mostly fathers -- unfairly and puts the wants of separated and divorcing parents above the needs of their children.

Feminist groups are lobbying fiercely to derail the committee's recommendations, which they expect will result in changes to the status quo.

Mr. Gallaway, Ms. Pearson and Ms. Cools all refused to discuss details of the committee's final report.

Copyright 1998 Ottawa Citizen