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Divorces have increased during the coronavirus pandemic and lawyers are expecting more

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WATCH: Family lawyers say they're noticing an increase in inquiries about divorce during the COVID-19 crisis. Catherine Urquhart reports.

After months of considering divorce, Julia and her husband finally separated on May 1. 

The 40-year-old woman from Ottawa told Global News that her ex-partner had been considering whether he was willing to work on their marriage prior to the coronavirus pandemic. 

But the stress of the pandemic, while they both worked as frontline workers and were homeschooling three children, made it clear that their marriage, which lasted 16 years, was not working anymore.

“Maybe the pandemic brought it to fruition,” she said. 

Global News has changed Julia’s name for privacy reasons. 

Read more: B.C. courts could see a surge of divorce filings when COVID-19 lockdown lifts

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Their relationship became more difficult as the pandemic dragged on. 

“We were just relying on each other, and weren’t ever getting the break that we needed to communicate or distance from one another. It was just a lot,” she said. 

There has been an increase in couples seeking a divorce and there will be a spike in filings when the courts open, multiple lawyers told Global News.

While it’s not entirely surprising that the stress of the pandemic caused some relationships to break down, there are new challenges to divorce proceedings as the courts remain closed and testimonies are moved online, the lawyers said. 

Isolated together, with no outside support 

While Julia says she’s coming to terms with the divorce, the fact that she and her now ex-partner need to continue to live together, as they are front-line workers and do not want to cross-contaminate to other households, creates an added stress. 

Their divorce won’t be finalized until next year as Ontario courts continue to be closed for non-urgent matters. They are moving forward with a separation agreement in the meantime, so they can find closure more quickly, she said. 

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Divorce rates rise during COVID-19…what you need to know

“We recognized that in order to preserve our friendship and to continue to be amicable, it’s probably best we move this along a little bit quicker,” she said.

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“So at least we can be friends.”

Liza Bakhshi, a family lawyer at Dhillon Law, a firm in Mississauga, Ont., says that while she’s seen an uptick in divorces in the last two months, she’s also seen an increase in calls to ask questions about divorce overall.

“The pandemic has definitely impacted people’s relationships within the home, especially considering both parties have to work from home,” she said.

Many families do not have the privilege of a large house where they can take space from one another, and the pandemic has forced couples to spend time together who may have not had a great relationship prior to the pandemic, said Bakhshi. 

Mental health issues that become exacerbated during the pandemic and feelings of isolation while you are in a poor relationship could also create an environment primed for divorce, she explained. 

“You are constantly in a small space with that individual…that leads to more issues within the household,” she said. 

Read more: Coronavirus: Divorce Act reforms delayed to March 2021

Particularly when there is an economic downturn, there is often a trend towards more divorces, said Ron Shulman, a Toronto-based family lawyer and founder of Shulman & Partners LLP.

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But the COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment for divorce that is much worse than he has seen during prior economic crises, he said.

Shulman says his firm has seen a 40-per cent increase in inquiries about divorce since the pandemic began.

“Those economic pressures, with people losing their jobs, their businesses…this uncertainty is adding significant stress on relationships that have already been strained before COVID, but this brings it to a new level,” he said. 

Losing access to in-person counselling or therapy that they may have been doing with their partner or on their own without their partner knowing also removes resources that may have helped the relationship, he said. 

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Navigating child custody and co-parenting during COVID-19

But COVID-19 is not directly to blame. Most of these couples had a shaky foundation with their relationships going into the pandemic, said Shulman. 

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“Whenever we deal with separations and divorces, there are always underlying issues. It’s rarely triggered by one specific event that comes out of the blue. It’s usually a process couples go through until they get to the point where one of them realizes separation is inevitable,” he said. 

“With the COVID-19 crisis and everything that followed, everything got significantly amplified…that’s what we see from the increase of clients calling in,” he said. 

New challenges in online divorce court 

Couples who have decided to divorce during the COVID-19 crisis are facing a host of new challenges in the proceedings beyond the divorce itself, said Shulman.

“The court system, in general, even before COVID, has been overstretched,” he said.

“It already had significant trouble keeping up with the timelines and keeping up with the needs people have.”

Now, there is additional strain due to courts being shut down and reopening slowly to what’s considered less urgent, like a divorce, he explained.

“It definitely creates a huge backlog of people waiting,” he said. Even before COVID, divorce matters were often pushed to later dates, he added.

The majority of the issues that were dealt with immediately had to do with children and custody concerns that were considered more urgent, along with domestic violence concerns, he explained.

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Overall it’s a major frustration for clients as delays continue when it comes to family law, said Shulman. 

Read more: Baby boom to breakups: Here’s how COVID-19 is testing relationships

“How do you bring matters to an end? Especially with the financial issues,” he said.

“They are putting band-aid solutions on cases through motions and urgent hearings, but the reality is people are looking for long-term resolutions.”

The legal system’s ability to adapt to moving online hasn’t been without many bumps and hurdles, said Donald Baker, a family lawyer at Baker and Baker Family Law in Toronto. 

Changes to the court system to move online are likely long overdue and the pandemic has forced the legal system to innovate, said Baker. But it’s sometimes slow moving, he said.

When you argue live cases in court, it’s easier to read other people in the room and get a sense of where the judge is coming from, and where the other side is coming from, said Baker. That’s harder to do over Zoom, he explained.

“If you can’t really see a person across the table or across the courtroom…it’s a real shot in the dark to try to get these things done. The emotional stuff revolving around children….the quality of the argument and and the evidence is pretty crummy (online),” he said.

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Seeing your kids not considered ‘urgent’

The delays in court have also impacted clients’ access to their children while divorces haven’t been finalized yet, said Bakhshi. 

“If it was supervised access, a lot of these access centres have been closed. There’s limited places where they can see the children,” she said. 

As a result, many of her clients have not been able to see their children — even though they are entitled to — due to COVID-19, she explained. 

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Break-up Week: The financial impact of a divorce

“That has been the most challenging thing. And obviously, the delay in the courts has pushed everything back,” she said. 

If the couple lives in two separate homes due to the separation, the parent living with the children will have the advantage in terms of time spent with the kids, especially at the height of the pandemic while households couldn’t mix, she explained.

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“This has been constantly an issue in court where we are trying to do an urgent motion for access, but they aren’t considered urgent if the child isn’t at risk,” she said. 

Newer cases, especially, are being delayed or rescheduled as it’s not the main priority for the legal system, with more urgent cases like criminal matters being dealt with first, said Bakhshi.

Read more: Working from home during coronavirus outbreak? Here’s how to keep your relationships intact

While these delays are in place, Bakhshi recommends those considering a divorce do research and consult a lawyer before moving forward with anything concrete.

“You want to make sure your rights are protected and you know about your partner’s finances,” she said. 

Do not hesitate to seek out other resources as well, including mental health professionals, she said. 

“When it comes to divorce and separations, there’s a lot of layers. Seek out social workers or other professional help that you might need,” she said.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.