Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Children focus of Divorce Act revisions

Changes would include funding to help counsel separating parents

Janice Tibbetts
Southam Newspapers; Southam News

Parents who are divorcing will get counselling about how to jointly care for their children under new rules to be announced today.

Along with the new rules, part of a proposed change to Canada's Divorce Act, comes a pledge to put millions of dollars into education programs to help separating parents.

As well, Justice Minister Marcin Cauchon said Monday the government is eliminating the words "custody" and "access" in hopes of fostering a system that is "less adversarial" in that it doesn't bring to mind winners and losers.

Alberta Justice Minister Dave Hancock welcomed the federal initiative.

The Alberta government completed its own review of access, custody and maintenance issues earlier this year.

A bill outlining changes to provincial legislation is likely to be introduced in the spring, and Hancock said it may have to be tweaked to be compatible with Ottawa's bill.

He will be looking for more details today, but Hancock said it sounds like the federal government is moving in the same direction as Alberta.

The Alberta Justice department was already planning to change the legal language in the province, putting the focus on "parental responsibility" rather than custody and access.

"It's very timely that we will actually be able to see where they're taking their revisions before we finalize ours," Hancock said.

The federal government is responsible for setting laws for custody issues when parents get divorced. The province sets the laws in all other cases involving children -- for instance, after a common-law couple splits.

In 1996, Alberta became the first province in the country to set up "Parenting After Separation" courses. The courses are mandatory for every parent who divorces or separates from their partner. Subjects include the effects of divorce on children and parents, legal issues and parenting plans.

There are also a number of mediation programs for families in the province.

Cauchon's proposed legislative changes were dismissed as cosmetic by numerous groups representing non-custodial parents, who wrote an open letter to the justice minister on Monday accusing him of a "program of hate" against men.

"Eliminating custody and access language will do precisely nothing to alleviate the suffering of countless thousands of Canadian children," said the letter, supported by 38 people representing groups across the country.

"Mr. Cauchon, without any real thought or effort, you reject the simplest form of justice: equal parenting. We urge you to reconsider the reckless insensitivity of your policy."

Cauchon is rejecting a proposal of a joint House of Commons and Senate Committee, which recommended almost four years ago the government adopt the concept of "shared parenting," in which equal access to children is presumed.

Canadian judges award sole custody to mothers 60 per cent of the time and joint custody in 30 per cent of cases, according to Divorce Magazine.

Women's groups have lobbied against any wholesale changes to divorce laws.

They have warned the federal government to proceed with caution because they fear that violent parents could get access to their children.

Nick Bala, a children's advocate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., praised the Justice Department for changing the loaded language of the Divorce Act but leaving the rest of it intact.

"The words custody and access are archaic and send an inappropriate message to parents," Bala said.

"There are many people for whom changing the words will not make a whole lot of difference. But there is a group of people who will take a message from Parliament, from the court about the need to work together."

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

While he is expected to provide millions of dollars for programs, officials would not confirm precisely how much money will be spent.

The money will go to the provinces, which will continue to control programs and services surrounding divorce.

With files from Kelly Cryderman

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