National Post

April 29, 2002

Justice Minister ready to drop custody reform

Cauchon 'not convinced': Government blasted as 'incapable of making a decision'

Janice Tibbetts
Southam News
National Post

OTTAWA - Martin Cauchon, the Minister of Justice, is expected to announce this week he does not plan significant changes to Canada's child custody laws because he is not convinced it would be in the best interests of children.

Even though his department has studied possible changes to the Divorce Act for five years, it is understood Mr. Cauchon will launch further public consultations into the controversial issue.

The Divorce Act, and suggested changes to it, have long been a lightning rod for those on both sides of the child custody debate.

Men's groups have lobbied for changes that would abandon a system of custody and access in favour of shared parenting in which each parent would have a legal entitlement to custody after divorce.

Women's groups have pressed for the status quo, arguing that automatic shared parenting may be harmful to women and children when family violence is an issue.

The entitlement recommendation was the cornerstone of a report more than three years ago by a joint Senate and House of Commons committee that recommended sweeping changes to the Divorce Act.

The committee also said the "tender years doctrine," in which custody of young children almost automatically goes to the mother, should be eliminated.

"I just find it beyond frustrating that justice ministers can continue to drag their feet or are incapable of making a decision," said Roger Gallaway, a Liberal MP who co-chaired the joint committee.

"Three years ago they espoused they were going in a particular direction in accordance with the committee's recommendations. We're looking for legislation now."

Mr. Cauchon inherited from his predecessor, Anne McLellan, a promise to announce legislative changes to custody and access laws by next month after extensive studies, consultations, reports and public hearings.

Mr. Cauchon's plans on custody and access will be included in a mandatory five-year review, which he must table by May 1, of federal child support payment guidelines introduced in 1997.

Virginia McRae, a Justice Department lawyer who co-chaired another more recent study conducted by the department, said the findings revealed how divided people are over changing the custody and access provisions of the Divorce Act.

"For some people terminology (the words custody and access) is a red flag and is a source of continuing conflict that parents find themselves in," Ms. McRae said.

"Other people responded to us and said don't waste your time on legislation, spend time helping people.

"They said 'We need help in terms of counselling or courses that could help parents and especially kids through a very difficult time.' "

The Justice Department's study, which was conducted from April to June, 2001, and released last fall, was less conclusive than the joint committee's report.

The matter could end up in court.

Blaine Collins, president of the Saskatchewan branch of the National Shared Parenting Association, said in February more than 1,000 people had been recruited to launch a class-action lawsuit against the government in anticipation of the Liberals reneging on a promise to change custody and access laws.

''These divorce laws hurt mothers, fathers, brothers, grandparents .... The Divorce Act causes no end of emotional grief, heartache and pain,'' Mr. Collins said.

Mr. Collins, a divorced father of two, is suing the Saskatchewan and federal governments for ''harbouring'' family laws he claims violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

''There has been a groundswell of support from people from every province. Over 1,000 people have signed up in two weeks for a class-action.

''In the next year or two years, the federal government is going to be facing a huge fight that in payouts and compensation could cost hundreds of billions of dollars,'' he said.

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