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No need to pause divorce proceedings in spite of foreign hearings: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in the case of a Belgian couple who lived in Quebec when they decided to divorce. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Quebec courts shouldn’t automatically pause civil proceedings when a foreign court is examining the same matter, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

The decision came Friday in the case of a Belgian couple who lived in Quebec when they decided to divorce.

The ruling highlights the complexities judges must consider in a world where legal matters frequently spill across international boundaries.

The pair, whose identities are protected, married in Brussels in 2004 and moved to Quebec with their two children in 2013.

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The husband applied for dissolution of the marriage under Belgian law in August 2014, while his wife applied in Quebec a few days later.

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Under Belgian law, the husband revoked, by way of letter, gifts valued at over $33 million — including cash, stocks, jewelry and half the family’s $6.6-million home in Quebec — that he gave his wife during their marriage.

He also filed a motion in Quebec Superior Court to dismiss his wife’s application, given that it was already the subject of proceedings in Belgium. Under the Quebec Civil Code, a court may put a proceeding on hold if the dispute is already playing out in a foreign jurisdiction.

For such an application to succeed, three conditions must be met: the action must have been filed in the foreign territory first, the substance of the dispute must be the same in each country and it must be possible for a decision of the foreign court to be recognized in Quebec.

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The Superior Court judge said the third condition was not met because the Quebec courts would consider the Belgian provision allowing revocation of the gifts to be discriminatory. As a result, the husband was unsuccessful in halting the Quebec proceedings.

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However, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the decision. The wife then took her case to the Supreme Court, which agreed with the original decision to let the divorce proceedings continue in Quebec.

A majority of the high court said the three conditions for pausing the Quebec proceedings had indeed been met. But it added that, even so, the Court of Appeal should have bowed to the discretion of the Superior Court judge.

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In writing for the majority, Justice Clement Gascon said it is ultimately up to the judge examining the matter to decide whether to halt proceedings.

Gascon stressed that one of the main issues in the case — revocation of the gifts and property — is highly relevant to Quebec. “There is no doubt in this case that the Quebec judgment would be effective, given that much of the valuable property at issue in the litigation is located in Quebec.”

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