Separation and divorce are stressful transitions that can have a profound effect on the health and well-being of children and their families. Many Canadians are concerned about the approach and adequacy of the current family law system and worried that, as a society, we are not adequately meeting the needs of children in these difficult circumstances. There is clearly a need to improve the framework within which child custody and access determinations are made.

To that end, the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access undertook the difficult task of reviewing these issues, which affect the lives of a large number of Canadian families. The Committee held 55 meetings and heard from over 520 witnesses across the country, including individual parents and children, women's groups, fathers' organizations, lawyers, judges, social workers, psychologists and physicians. The hearings highlighted the difficult, emotional and contentious nature of custody and access issues and confirmed that very different, often conflicting, views continue to be held both about the problems and about the reforms that are required.

The Special Joint Committee Report

The results of the Committee's work were summed up in its Report, For the Sake of the Children, released in December 1998. The Report includes recommendations on a number of critical and complex issues relating to determining custody and access, such as:

  • the rights and best interests of the child;
  • the terminology used in legislation;
  • parent education and mediation programs;
  • shared parenting and parenting plans;
  • the role of immediate and extended family members;
  • child support guidelines;
  • parenting orders;
  • unified family courts;
  • enforcement of access;
  • parental child abduction;
  • high-conflict families; and
  • false allegations of abuse.

The Report represents an important contribution to the ongoing discussion in this area, both for its broad survey of these complex and controversial issues and for its many specific recommendations.

For the Sake of the Children underscores the difficult, emotional and often painful issues that face separating and divorcing parents, and recommends possible legislative reforms. The Committee also recognizes that many of the difficulties people face are not in fact the result of inadequate laws, and cannot be solved simply by changing the law. Legislative provisions alone cannot ensure that parents will be cooperative and reasonable; education and social services play an essential role as well. Some parents and children also require support to help them cope with the intense emotions associated with family breakdown and to make decisions that will minimize the problems.

Moreover, even where changes to the law are called for, family law in Canada, as the Committee notes, is an area of shared constitutional jurisdiction. Both the Government of Canada and the provinces and territories have authority to legislate respecting child custody and access, and effective initiatives will require federal-provincial-territorial coordination.

There are no simple solutions to these problems. Nonetheless, the concerns raised by the Committee present an important challenge that needs to be met.

The Government of Canada's Response: An Overview

The Government of Canada is committed to responding to the issues identified by the Committee Report. The Special Joint Committee Report's key themes, concerns and recommendations provide a foundation for developing a strategy for reforming the policy and legislative framework that deals with the impact of divorce on Canadian children.

This Strategy for Reform is rooted in a number of framework principles.

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