B.C. Family Law Act changes rules for couples and wins praise from advocates
New provincial legislation has updated how the law applies to couples who are living together long-term and won praise from women’s-rights advocates.
The Family Law Act, which comes into effect today (March 18), includes a range of legal changes to areas such as property rights, family violence, protecting children, and dispute resolution.
The B.C. government bills the new legislation as a much-needed replacement for the decades-old Family Relations Act. In particular, the province notes the number of common-law couples in the province is growing at a faster rate than married couples.
“Family life and society in general has changed significantly since 1979, which is when the outdated Family Relations Act took effect,” Justice Minister Shirley Bond said in an statement emailed to the Straight.
“Our new family law reflects family justice reform in a way that better represents the values of our citizens, and addresses and provides clarity around important topics like out-of-court dispute resolution, property division, parenting arrangements and family violence.”
Grace Choi, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in family law, said the new act has significantly changed the province’s legal landscape.
“Anything that people thought they knew about family law previously, a lot of it is quite different now,” Choi, a partner with the firm Davis LLP, told the Straight by phone.
In particular, Choi noted there are a series of new legal rights and responsibilities for couples who are living together.
Under the new legislation, partners who have lived in “a marriage-like relationship” for two years or more are subject to the same property-division rules as married people who split up.
That means they have shared responsibility for any debt and equal entitlement to many types of property accumulated during the relationship. However, categories such as gifts, inheritance, and property acquired before the relationship started are excluded.
Choi recommended unmarried couples work out a contract with lawyers if they don’t want to be subject to the new property-division rules.
“People should not enter into cohabiting relationships lightly,” she said. “They should consider them to be of the same sort of legal effect as getting married.”
“So if there are any significant assets that you may want to keep separate, then having an agreement would be a really good idea.”
For West Coast LEAF, a Vancouver women’s-rights group, the new legislation is a positive step.
“It makes some significant changes that we hope will help advance women’s equality in family law,” Laura Track, the group’s legal director, told the Straight by phone.
Track highlighted the new definition of family violence for the courts which includes psychological or emotional abuse as well as physical and sexual abuse.
“It’s important to have direction to the courts about the nature of family violence and the fact that it’s not just physical assaults that have an impact on the best interests of children…,” she said.
Tracy Porteous, executive director of the Ending Violence Association of B.C., applauded the emphasis on making the interests of children the priority in disputes between parents.
Porteous expressed hope the approach will, for example, help eliminate any problems with the family court overlooking criminal sanctions against a parent seeking custody of a child.
“Now we believe that the way this act is written that the family court judiciary will actually have the legislative premise to solicit and seek all of the goings on in a particular family so that they can make the best decision in the interest of the child,” she told the Straight by phone.
Porteous also expressed dismay related to the act’s support for seeking to resolve family conflicts outside of court. She complained that there is no formal plan in place to help professionals identify cases where family violence might be present and the court system would be more appropriate.
"Because so many cases in a much more pointed fashion are going to be streamed into mediation, we want to make sure that those people that are picking those cases up can screen out cases where there's violence, because you can't mediate when somebody's being terrorized."
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s children's watchdog, welcomed the new Family Law Act, which was passed in November 2011.
"We have a fresh chance to build a system in the best interests of children and can now extend some stronger protections for vulnerable family members, such as mothers facing domestic violence and requiring the support of police and society for her safety and that of her children," Turpel-Lafond said in a statement released by the province.
"I look forward to supporting this legislation and believe it will help us strengthen our system for children and families."