Spouses in a common-law relationship have a responsibility to children who are not their own, even many after even a brief relationship has foundered, the Manitoba Court of Appeal has ruled.
The judgment, which stems from a case involving a couple who lived together for just over three years, pushes forward the debate about parental responsibility and puts the financial obligation toward stepchildren in a common-law relationship on par with what is expected from a marriage.
"It is not a relationship that is entered into casually," Judge Freda Steel said in the judgment, which stressed that it was not sufficient for someone in this kind of relationship to be "pleasant or financially generous without the intention to assume parental responsibilities.
"Given the growing numbers of blended families, it is not unusual now to have multiple parenting figures in a child's life, all of whom can add to the child's best interests. The law should seek to endorse broad visions of family that encourage the continuation of nurturing and support of children within those relationships," she wrote.
But while the majority judgment found that the child's interests outweighed the stepfather's autonomy to terminate responsibility when the relationship was over, a dissenting judge said imposing these kinds of obligations on a common-law partner could have dangerous and far-reaching implications.
Judge Charles Huband argued that this principle of continuing support could also be applied to foster parents, grandparents and others who temporarily take on a parental role with children who are not their own.
"No one would suggest that foster parents are bound to provide support indefinitely," he said in his dissenting judgment. "If they decide that they no longer wish to serve in the role as foster parents, they are free to retire, without lingering obligations to those who have benefited from their care in previous years."
In this case, the girl was about a month old when her mother, Leandre Monkman, began a common-law relationship with Walter Beaulieu.
According to the evidence, Mr. Beaulieu was called Dad by the little girl from the time she was about two, and he shared in all of the family's parenting responsibilities.
Mr. Beaulieu is described as "the only father she has ever known," and, in fact, it was not until May, 1999, when legal proceedings began, that the girl, then 11, discovered he was not her biological father.
The girl had no contact with her biological father, who was described as someone who spent most of his adult life in and out of jail.
While they were living together, Mr. Beaulieu and Ms. Monkman also had a child of their own, whom Mr. Beaulieu has agreed to support financially.
Common-law couples accounted for 13.8% of all families in 2001, more than double the proportion in Statistics Canada's 1981 census.
The focus of the debate in the court case was over the interpretation of the latin phrase, in loco parentis, which means, "stands in the place of a parent."
Judge Huband argues that the problem with this term, which has been removed from family law guidelines in most provinces, is its broad application, which could be applied to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even Samaritan-like family friends.
"The novels of Charles Dickens are full of stories involving these relationships," he said.
"Yet it would be astonishing to tax the benefactor with an ongoing statutory obligation to continue an act of generosity far into the future."
He said this judgment penalizes any kind and well-meaning person who for a period of time acts as a parent to a child who is not their own, by locking them into a financial obligation.
Alan Mirabelli, a spokesman for the Vanier Institute of the Family, said these kinds of relationships, though increasingly common, pose a legal quagmire for couples and the courts.
"If you enter into a marriage, there are conventions that are fairly clearly spelled out," he said. "In common-law relationships people are choosing an alternative form, and the onus is on them to set out the terms of responsibility at the outset."