VICTORIA – The B.C. government has introduced sweeping changes to family law, to reflect modern trends from test-tube babies to the rising number of common-law relationships.
B.C. now has three times the number of couples moving in together as are getting married, and those common-law relationships are more likely to break up. The legislation treats those similar to a marriage, in caring for children and division of assets.
The new Family Law Act is designed to encourage out-of-court settlements in family breakups, which account for about one fourth of all cases in B.C. courts. It does away with the terms "custody" and "access" and emphasizes parental responsibility and guardianship instead, with new penalties for parents who refuse to provide parenting time or fail to spend time with children as agreed or ordered by a judge.
The act also creates a new protection order for cases involving family violence, with any breach of the order treated as a criminal offence.
Tracy Porteous, executive director of the Ending Violence Association of B.C., said civil protection orders under the Family Relations Act are not taken seriously by police or coordinated with criminal investigations. Domestic violence cases are the second largest category of criminal charges in B.C. behind impaired driving.
"Hopefully, under this legislation, [judges] are not going to arrange to have someone who's threatening to kill the mother to have custody of the child," Porteous said.
Eugene Raponi, a family lawyer and mediator in Victoria, said common-law spouses currently have a difficult process to divide assets if they split up. The new legislation exempts inherited assets from settlements, and whether the couple is married or not, it calls for even division of assets accumulated while they are together.
It also protects voluntary agreements from being overturned by a judge, and provides for mediation and arbitration to reach agreements.
"I like to say that if it costs as much to get divorced as it did to get married, you're doing well, and I think a mediation can accomplish that goal," Raponi said.
The new law clarifies legal status for children where sperm or egg donors are used. An "intent to parent" definition ensures that donors do not have legal standing as parents.