Sweeping changes to modernize family law were introduced recently by the provincial government, and some of the feedback has been quite positive.
“These legislative changes will probably impact more people in B.C. than some we normally make as a government,” said Chilliwack-Hope MLA Barry Penner. “Over time that means a big chunk of the population will be guided by this legislation.”
He was referring to the estimate that “almost half” of all marriages will end in divorce, and that the fastest growing type of relationship is a common law one, even if they don’t tend to last as long.
The new Family Law Act replaces older legislation dating back to 1978, reflects the modern-day circumstances, and outlining parental responsibilities. It updates the way common-law couples will divide their assets, offers greater protection for children and urges solutions involving alternatives to litigation.
Common-law couples will now be covered under the divisions of assets provisions, and they’re limiting what is divisible after relationship breakdown. If the value of a residential property goes up, one purchased prior to the relationship by one partner for example, the couple would then split the net increase in value, but not its overall value.
“So it’s a significant change,” Penner said.
Discussion and debate on the new Family Law Act is also being followed closely by Bobbi Jacob, executive director of the Ann Davis Transition Society.
Protection orders are expected be taken more seriously now by law enforcement, including restraining orders, or no-contact orders.
“The criminalizing of violence in relationships gets a much stronger emphasis under the new legislation,” Jacob said.
The new law pledges to put the “best interests” of children first, above all other considerations when looking at custody and access issues.
“Everyone thinks they know what is in the best interests of a child, but how do we determine that in every case?” she asked.
Kids can end up in an “awkward” position when they’re asked what they want to do in a custody case.
“It’s often difficult enough when a relationship goes sideways,” Jacob said. “But when there are children involved, it’s even harder and there is an awful lot of emotion. So when you get a high-conflict situation, with violence and abuse where one party is controlled by the other, can we really hear those voices, and those of children? I hope that they’ll be very careful on that one.”
“Directing people toward mediation and arbitration” rather than automatically heading to court, “should be a better way to go,” Jacob noted.
For ADTS specifically, the local families they help tend to be “high conflict” and ones for whom mediation “does not work that well,” she cautioned.
The idea for “parenting coordinators” is a good one, Jacob said. In fact, ADTS has a trained parenting coordinator on staff, but no funds to offer the service.
“It will come down to money, which may be made available initially with these changes, but then down the line there could be cuts.”
She recommends parents with children who are facing divorce to consider registering for the ADTS program, Caught in the Middle.
“It helps people understand the children’s experience of divorce, which can be very damaging,” she said. “It’s the only program that has parents looking at what they can do to make their divorce or separation as easy as possible on the kids.”
Penner said trying to resolve disputes — without having to go to court to do it — is one of the goals.
“It is hoped the new Family Law Act will reduce pressure on the court system,” he said, with more emphasis placed on mediation, parent coordination, arbitration and voluntary agreements.
The way the law stood before, it presumed every case was going to court.
“This new legislation is intended to try to change that assumption,” Penner said.
Implementation the new law is expected to take at least 12 to 18 months to give sufficient time to make the associated changes.
“This bill marks a significant turning point for B.C. in addressing domestic violence, by introducing an explicit definition and provisions that send a clear message about the importance of courts considering all factors that might affect a child’s safety,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C. Representative for Children and Youth.
“It will also put in place a much stronger system for addressing the safety of women and children through protective orders, with criminal consequences for those who disregard them.”