14 November 2011

Family Law Act Introduced!

Attorney General Shirley Bond has this afternoon tabled Bill 16, the Family Law Act, for first reading in the Legislature. Assuming the bill becomes law, which seems a near inevitability given the government's comfortable majority at present, the new Family Law Act will completely revamp British Columbia's law on domestic relations and give us the most progressive legislation on relationship breakdown in the country.

In this post I will provide a rough summary of the key features of the proposed Family Law Act. Later posts will provide more details and better analysis, and examine some of the technical issues relating to the implementation of the new legislation. For more information about the background to the bill, click on the "White Paper" and "Family Relations Act" labels below.

A new emphasis on out-of-court resolution

The act encourages the resolution of family law problems by means other than litigation. The act gives equal emphasis to agreements and court orders, and provides better support for out of court negotiations by making complete disclosure mandatory in all cases and by imposing penalties for failures to make disclosure which result in the court setting aside an agreement.

The act will give the court new authority to refer parties to counselling and to out-of-court dispute resolution services like counselling and mediation, including as a means of helping parties comply with court orders. The court will be able to appoint a parenting coordinator to manage the implementation of orders and agreements involving children, even over the objection of a party.

The act also provides improved support for the arbitration of family law disputes and will make a host of changes to the Commercial Arbitration Act to better accommodate family law disputes.

A child-focused approach to parenting after separation

The new act throws out conflict-laden terms like "custody" and "access" and replaces them with a new model of parenting after separation which prioritizes a child's entitlement to proper parenting and meaningful time with each parent over a parent's right to control the child's upbringing and have a schedule of contact with the child.

Under the act, parents who have lived together after their child was born will be the child's guardians until they agree or a court orders otherwise.

People who are guardians, which may include people other than parents, have parental responsibilities in respect of the child, including the duty to raise the child, to make decisions about where the child lives and with whom the child spends time, and to make choices about the child's medical care, school, religion and so forth. Parental responsibilities can be divided or shared between guardians. The time a child is with a guardian is parenting time, and references in the legislation to parenting arrangements means arrangements made in respect of parental responsibilities and parenting time.

People who are not guardians, including parents who are not guardians, have contact with a child and do not have parental responsibilities. "Parenting arrangements" does not include arrangements made in respect of contact.

A new approach to the best interests of children

Decisions about parenting arrangements and contact, whether in an order or an agreement, are to be made in the best interests of the child. The best interests of the child are no longer the "paramount" consideration but the only consideration the court or the parties may take into account when making an order or agreement affecting a child.

The act provides a new, expanded definition of best interests which, among other things, requires consideration of: the child's views and wishes, the history of the child's care, the capacity of the child's parents, and any history of family violence. The act requires the court to assess the nature, extent and impact of family violence on the child's well being and provides a list of factors which the court must consider in making this assessment.

Planning for a parent's incapacity

The act allows guardians to appoint stand-by guardians to take over a guardian's parental responsibilities in the event the guardian is no longer able to manage those responsibilities. The appointment may take effect on the guardian's incapacity and may be permanent or last only for the duration of incapacity.

A guardian may also appoint a person to take over in the event of the guardian's death. Testamentary guardians may be appointed by the deceased guardian's will or through the execution of a new form.

Managing children's property

Under the new act, parents are not presumptively entitled to act as guardians of their children's property, except for property with a value less than a certain amount. Property guardians, who may include parents, must be appointed by the court in consultation with the Public Guardian and Trustee.

At last, some rules about moving with a child!

The act provides a mechanism to address mobility issues. This is welcome indeed as the law on this extremely difficult issue has so far been entirely governed by case law, much of which is inconsistent to the point of being contradictory, despite the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in Gordon v. Goertz.

Under the new act, a guardian wishing to "relocate" with a child will have to give 60 days' notice to anyone else who is a guardian or has contact with the child. Relocation means a change in a child’s residence “that can be reasonably be expected to have a significant impact on a child’s relationship” with a guardian or another significant person. A guardian who opposes a proposed relocation will have 30 days to from delivery of the notice to file an objection.

The act provides a test to determine whether the court should allow a proposed relocation when negotiations between the parties have failed: the guardian wishing to move must prove that the proposed move is being made in good faith and that reasonable arrangements have been made to preserve the child's relationship with the parent who is not moving. When the guardians have equal or almost equal parenting time, the guardian wishing to move must also prove that the move is in the child's best interests.

New rules about assisted reproduction

The new act makes extensive provisions for people having children by assisted reproduction. Until now assisted reproduction has been governed only by the federal Assisted Human Reproduction Act and the common law; there was no provincial legislation on the subject.

Under the Family Law Act, people will be able to contract for the donation of sperm or eggs, or for a woman to act as a surrogate mother carrying an embryo created with any combination of donated gametes, including or not the gametes of the people wishing to have the child. These contracts, as long as they are executed prior to conception, will be sufficient to determine the legal parentage of a child, and, if the parties to the agreement wish, can name more than just the people wishing to have the child as parents. A donor or surrogate may also be a legal parent.

Prioritizing child support obligations

Under the new act, as under the current law, parents as well as stepparents and guardians are responsible to pay child support. The new act will make the duty of a guardian who isn't a parent secondary to that of a parent, and a stepparent's duty to pay child support secondary to that of a non-parent guardian.

A payor's obligation to pay child support will continue to take priority over any obligation to pay spousal support, meaning that if a payor can't pay both amounts only child support will be payable. However, the end of a child support obligation may result in a reconsideration of the payor's spousal support obligation.

Independent children under the age of majority

Children younger than age 19 may stop being entitled to child support where they have voluntarily withdrawn from their parents' care, for reasons other than family violence or intolerable living conditions.

An expanded definition of "spouse" for spousal support

"Spouses" are entitled to apply for spousal support. Spouse, for the purposes of spousal support applications, includes:
  1. people who are married or who used to be married;
  2. unmarried people who have lived together in marriage-like relationships for more than two years; and,
  3. unmarried people who have lived together for less than two years but have had a child together.
Married spouses must apply for spousal support under the new act within two years of divorce or the annulment of their marriage. Unmarried spouses must apply within two years of the date of their separation.

Harmonizing spousal support with the Divorce Act

The provisions for spousal support in the new legislation mirror those set out in the federal Divorce Act. A spouse's entitlement to support is determined by reference to a list of objectives and, once entitlement is found, the amount of support payable and the length of time it will be payable for are determined by reference to a list of factors.

The Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines is not referenced in the new legislation. This continues the present status of the Advisory Guidelines, which is not a law and has been formally adopted by neither the Divorce Act nor the Family Relations Act.

A limited revival of misconduct

Spousal misconduct has been a forbidden consideration since introduction of the no-fault amendments to the Divorce Act in 1968; before those amendments, spousal misconduct, such as committing adultery or being abusive, was a legitimate consideration in making or refusing to make a spousal support order.

The new act will allow the court to consider misconduct which causes or prolongs a spouse's need for support as well as misconduct which unreasonably affects the capacity of a spouse to pay support. The point here, I think, is to penalize: goldbricking spouses who fail to take meaningful steps to become self-sufficient within a reasonable period of time; oppressive behaviour which hinders or delays a spouse's ability to be self-sufficient; and, spouses who arrange a decrease in personal income to duck a support obligation.

Reviewable arrangements for spousal support

Orders and agreements on spousal support may require that provisions for spousal support be reviewable. A review can happen at a certain date or upon the occurrence of a specific event, and the order or agreement can specify how the review will occur — such as by a court hearing or by a process of mediation — and what issues or circumstances will be considered at the review.

Under the act, spousal support will also be reviewable when a spouse becomes entitled to receive benefits from a pension, whether the order or agreement provides for a review in those circumstances or not.

Making support obligations binding on a payor's estate

Orders and agreements for child support and spousal support can be made binding on a payor's estate. The court can also require a payor to maintain a life insurance with a spouse or child named as the beneficiary of the policy.

A new, more intuitive scheme for property division

Under the new act, there will be two categories of asset, assets presumptively excluded from division and assets presumptively divided equally. Under the Family Relations Act, almost all property owned by either or both spouses was up for division, regardless of who owned an asset or when it was acquired; all that mattered was whether the property was "ordinarily used for a family purpose."

Under the new act, excluded property includes assets acquired by a spouse before the relationship, gifts and inheritances received by a spouse, certain kinds of court awards and certain kinds of insurance payments. Except for the increase in value of excluded property during the relationship, excluded property remains the property of the spouse who acquired it.

Family property is primarily composed of the assets acquired by either spouse during the relationship and is owned by a spouse at the date of separation. Family property is presumptively shared equally between spouses.

The court can divide excluded property or reapportion family property but only when it would be "significantly unfair" not to do so. The point here, I think, is to raise the threshold of unfairness that must be met before the court can depart from the presumptive property division scheme.

As if these changes weren't enough, the new scheme for property division will apply to married spouses as well as unmarried people who have lived together for more than two years! This is a really important feature of the new law because unmarried couples are cut out of the parts of the Family Relations Act which divide property between married spouses, largely leaving unmarried people stuck with difficult and often unsatisfactory claims based on unjust enrichment and trust law.

Allocating responsibility for debts

The act will also allow the court to divide responsibility for "family debts" between spouses. Family debts are debts incurred during the relationship, or incurred to maintain family property after separation, and is presumptively shared equally between spouses

Addressing family violence

The act has a new definition of family violence which includes, in addition to physical abuse, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse, forcible confinement and restriction of a person's autonomy, and withholding the necessities of life.

When a person is at risk of family violence, the court may make a protection order which can include provisions restricting contact between the parties, restraining a party from going to the family home, restraining stalking-type behaviour, or restraining a party from possessing weapons. The new act provides that where another order under the Family Law Act conflicts with a protection order, the terms of that order are suspended to the extent of the conflict. This could mean, for example, that a protection order preventing communication between the parties might result in the suspension of a separate order for contact or parenting time if that order would normally require communication between the parties.

The Family Law Act contains no provisions to enforce protection orders. Instead, such orders can only be enforced by the police through s. 127(1) of the Criminal Code which makes it an offence to breach a court order.

Better management of court processes

Under the act, the court will be able to make a number of conduct orders intended to help the court manage its processes, manage the parties before it and encourage the settlement of disputes. Among other things, the court can order that parties attend counselling, impose restrictions on how they communicate with each other, and require that a party post a bond to secure his or her good behaviour.

Conduct orders include case management orders such as an order striking or dismissing all or part of a claim, an order prohibiting a party from bringing further applications without permission from the court, or an order requiring all further applications to be heard by the same judge.

The new act enhances the court's ability to enforce its own orders — except for the enforcement of protection orders — and the court may order that a party post security for the party's compliance with an order, pay the other party's expenses for enforcing an order, or pay a fine of up to $5,000. Where nothing else will secure a party's compliance, the court may order that the party be jailed for up to 30 days. These provisions apply to the provincial court as well as a the supreme court, and will significantly improve the provincial court's ability to deal with parties in contempt of court.

What else is going on?

In anticipation of the new act, the Supreme Court has revived its rules committee — yes, the committee which was responsible for the brand new family law rules introduced last summer — to overhaul them again to accommodate the new language, new processes and new orders available under the Family Law Act. The Provincial Court has struck a rules committee to the same purpose.

Whatever changes may flow from rules committees' recommendations, they are unlikely take effect any sooner than the coming into force of the new act.

A few final, but still preliminary, thoughts

I am, on the whole, tremendously impressed with the proposed legislation. It is progressive and forward-thinking, and puts the entitlements of children before the rights of their parents. It brings the law on domestic relations in British Columbia into the twenty-first century by squarely addressing the complex issue of assisted human reproduction, the nuanced impact of family violence and the increasing prevalence of long-term unmarried relationships. It also fixes a number of existing problems by giving the provincial court the teeth to enforce its own orders and by bringing the mechanics of property division more in line with people's intuitive expectations.

It remains to be seen, however, how the new act will work in practice. It is not clear to me, for example, how the enforcement of protection orders through the Criminal Code will work. Will the police cooperate in enforcing protection orders? Will enforcement get bogged down by the much higher burden of proof that applies in criminal matters? Or, to take a different subject, how will the presumption of shared guardianship unfold? Will it work to effectively and efficiently promote children's best interests, or will it instead encourage litigation by forcing angry parents into court to get an order terminating shared guardianship?

Despite these concerns, concerns which are relatively minor in light of the astonishing breadth of the new law, I remain optimistic that this legislation represents a significant and positive advancement over the the present law. The staff of the Ministry of the Attorney General have devoted an enormous amount of time to this project over the past five years and their efforts are to be recognized and applauded.

The Attorney General's news release on the new act can be found on the provincial government website. (One small correction, though: the first Family Relations Act was introduced in 1972, not 1978.)

Follow the new label "Family Law Act" to track my future posts on the new legislation.

Update: 15 November 2011

You can listen to me talk about the new legislation with Mark Forsythe on CBC Radio's BC Almanac. Topics discussed include the new roles of mediation and arbitration, custody and access reports and views of the child reports, spousal support and the new best interests of the child test.

You can read another post of mine on the background of the Family Law Act at Courthouse Libraries BC's The Stream. This post is written for lawyers and is somewhat more technical in nature.