Canoe News

September 9, 2001

Justice ministers to talk Divorce Act, voyeurism and sex offender registry

Canoe News

OTTAWA (CP) -- Canada's justice ministers are working this week to agree on a plan toward a much-anticipated overhaul of Canada's divorce and child custody laws.

Federal and provincial ministers gathering Tuesday for a two-day meeting will get a peek at the results of lengthy federal consultations on, among other things, making family law more child-centred.

The ministers are hoping they can then come up with a consensus on how governments should proceed on an issue that tears families apart.

It's just one of several unsavoury subjects they will tackle when they gather at a Nova Scotia beach resort for their annual meeting.

Ottawa will be on the defensive as several provincial ministers band together to demand a national registry to keep track of sex offenders across the country.

The federal government will also have to answer for its lack of action on changing a system of conditional sentences that provinces say allows serious offenders to get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

Federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan will also have to fend off attacks, primarily from Quebec, over newly passed legislation that cracks down on young offenders.

But many eyes will be fixed on how the ministers decide to move on changing family law, including proposals to create new Criminal Code provisions to deal with spousal abuse.

A joint Senate-Commons committee conducted year-long hearings on the Divorce Act and reported back in 1999 with 48 recommendations to change the existing family laws.

The committee recommended replacing the terms "custody and access" with "shared parenting," a symbolic move in line with other proposed changes prescribing a less adversarial system.

It also said the system should be more child-centred and sympathetic to the demands of extended family members, such as grandparents, who want to maintain relationships with children of broken homes.

To the dismay of critics, McLellan said she would study the recommendations and hold consultations, then only report to Parliament in May, 2002.

Ministers will hear Tuesday the findings of consultants, then decide on next steps. Officials say options on the table include legislative changes, as well as creating new services for families who have to cope with the trials of divorce.

Ministers will also hear from a committee of officials which will report on a study of whether amendments should be made to the Criminal Code to deal with spousal abuse.

But several of the ministers in attendance are also eager to push Ottawa on creating a national registry that would ensure police know the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders no matter where they live.

Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba's justice minister, will put a resolution on the table asking Ottawa to create such a registry. He said Manitoba is considering implementing its own system, but would prefer a national one.

"If we have to do it we will . . . but we are not going to take any of the pressure off of the federal government by starting to create registries all across the country," he said last week.

The Liberals have been resistant to the idea, although they supported a Canadian Alliance motion in the Commons last spring that called for a national registry.

Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay offered to improve the existing Canadian Police Information Centre database by including address information on sex offenders and making the system searchable.

"Any system that relies on offenders to input their own information has already proven in most of the (United) States as ineffective," said one federal official.

"A separate registry is not the way to go."

Ontario Premier Mike Harris said last week his province, which already has its own registry, would be willing to develop and pay for a national system.

In addition, the ministers will discuss whether the federal government should create new a Criminal Code offence to deal with peeping Toms.

Currently, voyeurs can be charged with mischief, trespassing or even criminal harassment, but some provinces want stronger penalties.

If the ministers agree, federal legislation could come within a couple of years.

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.