15 May 2015

Why the Family Law Act Should Be a Complete Code

A fog of uncertainty and conflicting cases continues to trouble the new Family Law Act. The confusion is understandable, given that barely two years have elapsed since the act came fully into force and that the Court of Appeal has yet to pronounce upon the key areas of controversy, but nonetheless highlights critical access to justice issues that went unobserved and unnoticed under the previous legislative regime which thirty years' of case law had fully explored.

One of these key areas concerns the status of gifts received by spouses and whether such gifts are divisible family property or are excluded from sharing. Under s. 85(1)(b.1) of the act, "gifts to a spouse from a third party" are excluded from the pool of family property that is divided between spouses. However, controversy has arisen as to whether this seemly simple statement captures all gifts to a spouse such that the common law presumption of advancement no longer applies.

(The "common law" is the English legal system in which judges build the law as they decide each case, and is the legal system everywhere in Canada except Quebec. The "presumption of advancement" is a principle of the common law that when a spouse or a parent transfer property to a spouse or a child, the transfer is a gift. The presumption can usually be avoided if the spouse or parent can prove that the transfer was a loan or otherwise show that there was no intention to make a gift. The presumption of advancement is written into the Family Law Act.)

In Remmem v Remmem, Mr. Justice Butler decided that the presumption of advancement no longer applies in British Columbia because the Family Law Act is "intended to be a complete code so that there is no need to examine the intention of the parties." Moreover, if the presumption did apply, the presumption would: require that unmarried spouses be treated differently than married spouses, as the presumption only operates between married spouses; and, undermine the "apparent simplicity and certainty of the property division scheme."

On the other hand, Mr. Justice Masuhara, writing in Wells v Campbell, observed that the act fails to explicitly extinguish the presumption of advancement or otherwise alter the law on perfected inter vivos gifts, and applied the presumption. A similar result was found by Mr. Justice Walker in V.J.F. v S.K.W., who further noted the unfortunate provisions of s. 104(2) of the act,
"The rights under [the part of the act dealing with the division of property] are in addition to and not in substitution for rights under equity or any other law,"
and likewise applied the presumption. I've discussed all three of these cases more fully in my post "Dividing Property under the FLA."

The different conclusions reached in these cases reflects more than a disagreement between judges; they reflect two of the fundamental barriers to accessible justice created by our legislation on family law.

Firstly, nothing in the Family Law Act tells the reader that she must look anywhere other than the act to understand her right to share in the property accumulating during her relationship. Nothing in the act hints that the presumption of advancement exists, never mind the other common law principles like the presumptions of gift and resulting trust, the doctrine of unjust enrichment or the constructive trust. How would someone leaving a relationship ever come to the conclusion that she needed to look anywhere other than the legislation on the division of family property to figure out her and her spouse’s rights? What would make her even suspect that there might be other rules to consider than those set out in the act?

Secondly, by injecting the principles of the common law into the division of family property, the certainty created by the Family Law Act – such as it is – is substantially undermined. Vagueness in legislation has a number of negative effects in family law matters: it makes the results of disputes indeterminate and potentially unknowable; it broadens the range of likely outcomes; in broadening the range of outcomes, it does nothing to limit spouses’ hopes and expectations about the result of their cases; and, in failing to limit spouses’ expectations, it promotes conflict.

I have written elsewhere about the need for legislation on family law to be clearly written and comprehensible to the average reader. I have also written about how legislation on family law that fails to limit the range of likely outcomes encourages a single-serving approach to justice that, in serving the individual well, creates uncertainty and a muddled body of case law for everyone else. I’ve also written about the how the chances of settlement improve when individuals’ expectations as to outcome lie within the range of likely results and how the chances of settlement correspondingly diminish when litigants have unrealistically high expectations, and will say no more on the matter.

In my view, Mr. Justice Butler’s approach to the Family Law Act, although undermined by s. 104(2), is much to be preferred in the context of family law disputes. If I had my druthers, the legislation on family law would indeed be a complete code, to both enhance access to family justice and dampen conflict by constraining parties’ expectations.

It seems to me that there are at least three principles that should be applied to the design and drafting of legislation on family law subjects if access to justice is a goal worth pursuing:

1. The legislation on family law should be written as clearly and concisely as possible. The average person, possessed of average intellect and average literacy, ought not be required to retain counsel to read and understand the legislation applicable to her circumstances. Family justice is inaccessible when the governing legislation is incomprehensible.

2. The legislation on family law should be exhaustive of the subject matter it purports to address. It is not unreasonable for an individual to expect that reading the legislation on the division of family property would provide all of the information relevant to the division of family property. Family justice is inaccessible when critical sources of law exist parallel to and unacknowledged by the governing legislation.

3. The legislation on family law should provide certainty as to the results of proceedings commenced under that legislation. People reading the legislation should be able to understand how the legislation applies to their circumstances and predict the likely outcome of proceedings under that legislation. Family justice is inaccessible when the result of the application of the governing legislation is indeterminate.

Much of the present efforts toward justice reform is focused on improving public legal education, redesigning justice processes and integrating social services within justice processes. These efforts necessarily contemplate revision of the rules of court, but there are more fundamental rules that must also be considered. Reform of the legislation on domestic relations must not be overlooked as we work to improve the accessibility of family justice.

It seems to me that the Family Law Act, and access to family justice for British Columbians, would be greatly improved if s. 104(2) was amended to limit the application of other laws to the relevant legislation of British Columbia, like the Land Title Act or the Partition of Property Act, and to expressly extinguish the application of common law principles to the rules about family property and excluded property under the act.

A version of this post was originally published in the legal news magazine Slaw on 15 May 2015.