18 February 2015

Separation, Divorce or Restructuring?: An Argument for the Latter

The words we use when talking about legal concepts carry a lot more meaning than the dictionary definition of those words; the words we use often reveal something about how we think about those ideas and the fog of cultural values with which they are associated. Language has a surprising impact on how we understand and interact with the world, and I am often astonished by how much my perception of a particular legal concept can change simply by choosing different words to talk about it.

Take, for example, the language we use to describe the care of children after separation. (I'm choosing my words intentionally here.) The federal Divorce Act talks about these legal concepts in terms of "custody" and "access." This was the language used in the original Divorce Act, which became law in 1968, and was a lazy, unevolved borrowing of the terminology used in the first commonwealth legislation on divorce, the United Kingdom's Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. British Columbia's former Family Relations Act, which became law in 1972, talked about custody and access as well, but included an additional term, "guardianship."

What's custody, then, and what's a custodian, a person who has custody of something? In civil law, custody means the right to possess and control an object. In criminal law, custody means the lawful detention of a person against his or her will. However, custody also carries with it somewhat of a flavour of an obligation to care for the person or thing that the custodian controls. The criminal sense of custody implies a duty to attend to and protect the person in custody, and the civil sense can sometimes imply a duty of preservation.

This duty of care business lies at the heart of guardianship, a concept which comes from the civil law of the Roman Empire and first made its way into English law by way of the Guardians in Socage Act of 1267. Although a guardian can be a guardian of property — this is essentially what a trustee does — we usually use the term in relation to persons, and in family law this means a duty to see to the wellbeing of a child and the preservation of the child's property.

Under the Family Relations Act, however, guardianship took a back seat to custody, largely because the Divorce Act only spoke of custody and the Divorce Act is paramount legislation, meaning that when the two laws conflict, the federal law wins. This had the effect of focussing the legal arguments of separated parents on the possession, rather than the care, of their children. Four things flowed from this in terms of the cultural values relating to separation:
1. Custody was often seen as a property right, which distracted parents and lawyers from the best interests and wellbeing of the parents'  children.  
2. The "right" in question belonged to the parent rather than to the child.  
3. Arguments about custody often resolved into an all-or-nothing proposition, which dramatically heightened the perceived consequences of "winning" and "losing" a custody battle and caused parents to invest tremendous importance in the outcome. 
4. The role of the parent who wound up only with access was inevitably trivialized relative to that of the parent who had custody.
Thankfully, at some point in the early 2000s family law lawyers drafting agreements and, somewhat later, orders, began using less conflict-laden words to describe the legal concepts involved in custody, access and guardianship. Access started to be discussed as "the parent's time with the child," "the time the child is with the parent," or better yet "parenting time" and "caregiving time." Guardianship was framed as "parenting responsibilities" and "decision-making duties." Custody could be referred to as "the primary residence of the child" or "the home where the child usually lives," or something to a similar effect.

This sort of language held the virtues of being child-focussed, rather than parent-focussed, and of talking about the care of children in terms each parent could get behind. It also had the effect of transitioning custody from an all-or-nothing choice between polar alternatives to a more fluid range of potential arrangements. (It was, in my experience, far easier for my clients to agree that the other parent would have the child's primary residence — in appropriate circumstances! — plus a certain amount of time with the child than to agree that the other parent would have custody of the child.) Most importantly, it also made family law disputes easier to settle by pulling the schismatic venom from the old language used to describe the care of children.

What was most interesting, in my view, was that the judges dealing with family law matters got on board with the new approach to language in fairly short order. There were plenty of legal arguments to be made that "primary residence" did not mean custody and that "parental decision-making" did not imply the range of legal rights involved in guardianship, yet these arguments rarely saw the light of day. Judges were actually prepared to make and endorse orders using this sort of language rather than the mildewed and conflictual language of custody and access.

The point I'm trying to make here is that this change of language had a profound impact on how lawyers, mediators, arbitrators and judges approached disputes about children, and it had a consequential impact on how parents viewed these disputes as well. Ultimately, this helped to decrease conflict between parents and made it easier to settle arguments that might have escalated out of control using the old terminology. Interestingly, the new language eventually received the government's seal of approval in 2011 with the new Family Law Act, which talks about parents who are the guardians of the children and in that capacity have "parental responsibilities" and enjoy "parenting time" with their children.

There's another change of language I would like to propose which concerns how we think of family breakdown, particularly in the context of family law.

"Separation," "divorce" and even euphemisms like "family breakdown," "splitting up" and "breaking down" are all ways of talking about the end of a romantic relationship, and reveal quite a lot about how we think about, and the fog of cultural values we associate with, the end of such relationships. These terms are all synonyms for severing, disconnecting, detaching, cutting off, sundering and a host of similar ideas; they imply an terminal ending, the cessation of one state and the commencement of another, entirely different state.

Conceptualizing family breakdown as a conclusive rupture of what was once a whole is fine for couples who are casually dating or in a more serious cohabiting relationship but childless. After all, the people in these relationships have a reasonable interest in entering new relationships and moving on with their lives. However, this way of thinking about family breakdown strikes me as problematic for couples that are financially interdependent and couples who have children, particularly for the latter.

Parents rarely have the luxury of watching their former partner ride off into the sunset and washing their hands of the relationship. Whether the child was intended or not, becoming a parent entails a lifelong commitment to care for and nurture that child and almost always necessitates a lifelong relationship with the child's other parent, and this is where the wheels fall off the concept of family breakdown as terminal end: the legal end of the parents' relationship might be the child's emancipation and achievement of financial dependence, but the emotional end is rarely so definitively achieved. Most parents want to be there when their adult child marries, becomes seriously ill, has a child, graduates university, declares bankruptcy or receives professional accolades. As a result, not only does a parent's relationship with a child never disconnect, detach, sunder or rupture, neither do most parents' relationships with each other.

It's not only emotionally unhealthy to conceptualize the breakdown of parents' relationships as a termination, it's legally unrealistic as well. I worry that thinking of final orders in family law matters involving children as actually "final" is self-deceptive and sometimes grossly optimistic. (This is one of the things that makes family law so different from other areas of the civil law, where cases have a both a beginning and an actual, conclusive end.)

A few years ago, I was talking to Jerry McHale Q.C., a former assistant deputy ministry of the British Columbia Ministry of Justice and presently the Lam Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Victoria, about justice reform and he described family justice as essentially involving the "restructuring" of families, and this is the change of language I propose.

Although I'd probably practiced family law for ten years by the time of this conversation, Jerry's insight, as simple as it was, crystallized my approach to family law. It elegantly points out that where a family includes children, the "family" does not separate or divorce or breakdown. Families restructure, and my job as a family law lawyer, mediator and arbitrator was to help families restructure and reorganize themselves. My job was to help my clients work out: how the same pool of property and debt would be used and managed by the couple now that they were living apart; how the same financial inputs that the couple had before living apart would be spent maintaining two separate homes; and, how the same parenting resources and commitments that the couple had while living together would be allocated and optimized now that the couple were living apart.

In essence, thinking of separation and family law dispute resolution processes as "restructuring" recognizes the continuation of the separated family as a family, although a family living in two different homes. I can think of at least five benefits that might arise from the constellation of values this way of thinking suggests:
1. It encourages a recognition and holistic view of the multiple relationships that exist within the family, between parents, between siblings and between parents and children. 
2. It discourages an adversarial approach by recognizing the continuing existence of the family and by framing separation as a transition rather than a termination. 
3. It discourages positional attitudes based on self-interest by recognizing that the constituent elements, financial and parental, that supported the family before separation are the same and only constituent elements available to support the family after separation.
 4. It expands the circle of interested parties, normally limited to the parents who are the combatants in the legal dispute, to include their children.
5. It encourages the legal and mental health professionals involved in family law to conceptualize their roles as supporting the family as a whole through its transition from one home to two, rather than as advancing the interests of only one member of that family.
This seems to me to be a healthier approach to separation and dispute resolution, an approach that is child-centred and emphasizes the wellness of the changing family as a whole, than the present approach which is predicated on conflict and dwells more on the self-interest of the individual parents than on the interests of their children. What do you think?