Calgary Herald

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

$63 million to be spent on better family services under altered Divorce Act

SANDRA CORDON
Canadian Press
Calgary Herald

OTTAWA (CP) - Changes to the Divorce Act coupled with new money to support family services should better meet the needs of children after their parents break up, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said Tuesday.

Proposed changes to the national family justice system include not only amendments to the law but also millions of dollars for new counselling services to help separating parents jointly care for their children. "These reforms are all about children," Cauchon said in outlining the proposals. "Children need their parents' love, attention and financial support as well as a safe environment," he added.

"Children's needs come first after separation and divorce."

Changes to the act would eliminate the words "custody" and "access" and replace them with "parenting orders." The idea is to make the process less adversarial.

The minister acknowledged the proposed changes don't represent a dramatic overhaul of the family justice system.

"In concrete terms, it's the approach . . . that is changing," to emphasize parental responsibilities, Cauchon said at a news conference.

With 43 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, Cauchon said education and mediation programs, rather than legislative changes, are the main element of his strategy.

The government will also add $63 million in new money during the next five years for the provinces and territories, which will continue to oversee programs and services related to divorce and family justice.

Another $16.1 million will be provided to increase the number of family court judges across the country.

Cauchon said the new family justice strategy, promised in the September throne speech, will try to minimize the pain of divorce for children, make the legal process less adversarial and help parents reach custody arrangements that best suit the children.

Critics complained the proposals amount to very little that's new.

As well, the proposed wording changes still don't ensure that parenting will be shared equally between men and women, said Canadian Alliance MPs.

Men's groups have complained that in child custody disputes, mothers are often favoured by the courts.

The Liberal government "has once again missed the boat on this issue of shared parenting," said Jay Hill, Alliance critic for child custody and divorce.

Too often, courts automatically assume that women should have more access than fathers, added Larry Spencer, Alliance family issues critic.

"These children do not belong to the state, they belong to the parents," said Spencer.

Cauchon denied that one parent has an advantage under the legal system.

"It's clear to me that all people are starting on the same footing," he said.

"We're not talking about rights, we're talking about responsibilities. What's paramount are the children."

The Canadian Bar Association said the proposed changes achieve that.

"In a nutshell, the new legislation does't presume that mandatory shared custody is the way to go in divorce cases involving children," Julia Cornish, chair of the CBA's national family law section, said in a statement.

"Judges must maintain the flexibility to deal with children equally."

Family court judges will be given a long list of factors to consider in making parental orders.

Criteria range from the children's heritage and spiritual background to any history of family violence as well as the nature and strength of the child's relationship with each parent.

Legislative changes are designed to make it easier to collect child-support payments when those fall behind.

© Copyright  2002 The Canadian Press

© Copyright 2002 Calgary Herald