Quebec ready to reform family law to protect children of common-law spouses

Sonia LeBel said her government, elected Oct. 1, is ready to tackle the issue, but she wouldn't give details. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec says it is ready to enact a major reform of family law following repeated calls by legal experts to ensure children of separated common-law parents are not deprived of financial support.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government intends to table a new family law bill within its first mandate, Justice Minister Sonia LeBel told reporters Wednesday.

READ MORE: Alberta proposes changes to property, adult child support rules for common-law couples

LeBel’s comments came in response to a manifesto published earlier in the day by eight former provincial ministers who argue Quebec’s outdated family law system leads to the impoverishment of some children.

Linda Goupil, a family lawyer and one of the manifesto’s signatories, said in an interview provincial legislation needs to take into account the fact 60 per cent of children in Quebec are born to unmarried parents every year.

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“There are consequences to this,” said Goupil, Quebec justice minister from 1998 to 2001.

“And in some cases, there is significant collateral damage, because families find themselves in poverty because of the state of the law.”

Quebec is the only province where separated common-law partners cannot seek support payments for themselves from their ex-partners. They are only eligible for basic child support payments, which can create a financial imbalance that affects children, Goupil said.

If one parent is significantly poorer than the other, child support payments might not be sufficient to ensure the couple’s children are financially protected, she explained. There is no guarantee the child will have access to the family home, for example, or any other asset that could benefit them.

READ MORE: Common-law couples can be ‘woefully ignorant of their rights’

Goupil said the distinctiveness of Quebec’s legislation regarding common-law couples was reaffirmed by a 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision, known as the “Eric and Lola” case.

The woman known by the pseudonym Lola had been seeking monthly support payments for herself from her billionaire former partner, a lump sum and a share of the family patrimony. The couple had lived together for seven years and had three children.

The court rejected Lola’s action, upholding Quebec’s Civil Code provision that the obligation to provide spousal support and divide family property applies only to couples who were married.

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READ MORE: Government committee recommends changes to Quebec family law

Universite de Montéal law professor Alain Roy presided over a government committee that looked into family law reform, producing a 2015 report that was shelved by the Liberal government of the day.

It was Roy who contacted the eight former ministers and asked them to sign the manifesto in an effort to revive his report’s recommendation of greater economic protection for children born to couples in common-law relationships.

All children, whether their parents are legally married or not, should be protected equally, Roy said in an interview.

READ MORE: Nearly half of Canadians feel ‘marriage is simply not necessary’: poll

“The point of this manifesto is to get the government to open up (family law), which is something the prior government unfortunately didn’t do,” he said. “We’re behind.”

“We need to get to work. It’s a big job.”

No deadline set

LeBel said her government, elected Oct. 1, is ready to tackle the issue, but she wouldn’t give details.

“It’s my intention, wait and see, it will be done,” LeBel told journalists at the legislature. “I won’t give myself a deadline.”

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Goupil says that while changes are needed to Quebec’s family law, it is important to maintain adults’ right to choose what kind of relationship they want.

READ MORE: High court says Quebec does not have to recognize common-law couples

If a couple with no children separates, they shouldn’t be required to divide assets if they didn’t agree to do so before their common-law union, she said.

“But as soon as there are children, we need to have a mandatory parental regime” that outlines how assets should be divided in the best interest of the children, Goupil added.

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