Common-law and married couples not due same rights in Quebec: court
Published Friday, January 25, 2013 8:24AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 10:42PM EST
In a complex ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada has decided by a slim majority that Quebec does not have to give common-law spouses the same rights as married couples.
The court ruled that the financial aspects of the province's family laws contained in its Civil Code are constitutional, do not discriminate against the rights of unmarried common-law couples, and do not have to be changed.
While the case affects only common-law couples in Quebec, Friday’s ruling could compel other provinces to re-examine their laws on the matter of spousal support as well.
Other provinces in Canada have provisions for spousal support, but under Quebec laws, partners do not owe each other anything when a common-law union ends.
The case before the court involved a woman and her former partner who went by the names Eric and Lola. The pair can't be identified in order to protect the identity of the couple’s three children.
She sought financial support -- or alimony -- from "Eric," when the couple separated in 2002 after seven years together.
Although the man already pays child support, “Lola” argued she should also be entitled to spousal support just as married couples are.
Lola lost her bid in 2010 in Quebec Superior Court when the judge ruled that recognizing all common-law couples as "married" would infringe on their freedom to choose not to marry.
Quebec’s Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, arguing that the province’s Civil Code discriminates against common-law spouses because it deprives them of a right that is guaranteed to married couples.
On Friday, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, saying the sections of Quebec’s Civil Code on spousal support are not unconstitutional.
CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson, reporting from the Supreme Court, says it was a complicated case and the justices offered a myriad of reasons for their decision.In fact, they split their decision four ways. But the majority did agree that the lower court struck the right tone in its decision that to impose spousal support obligations on couples who have deliberately chosen not to marry would take away their right to choose.
"The distinction made by the law between married, civil union and de facto spouses is rationally connected to the state objective of preserving the autonomy and freedom of choice of Quebec spouses,” the court said in its decision.
"Without this distinction, the clear choice between a regime of division of property and support on the one hand, and a regime of full autonomy on the other hand, would be absent."
It later added: "Those who choose to marry choose the protections – but also the responsibilities – associated with that status. Those who choose not to marry avoid these state-imposed responsibilities and protections, and gain the opportunity to structure their relationship outside the confines of the mandatory regime applicable to married and civil union spouses."
About 1.2 million Quebec residents live in common-law relationships. In fact, the province has the largest proportion of unmarried couples in the world. As well, 52 per cent of children in Quebec are born to common law couples.
The decision means that Lola, a former model from Brazil, will not get a lump-sum payment of $50 million from the family estate, nor will she get a monthly alimony payment of $56,000, as she had sought.
She already receives about $460,000 a year in child support and was given a $2.5 million home. A court ruling in 2006 also compelled Eric to also give her a car and to pay for a chauffeur, a cook and two nannies. He also buys plane tickets for the children and nannies for two trips a year as well as a daily allowance of up to $1,000 for the holidays.
Quebec Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud said after the decision that even though the court ruled Quebec’s family law wasn’t unconstitutional, his government wasn’t ruling out reforming the law.
He said it may be time to consider changing the law to grant better income support protection to unmarried women who leave a common-law relationship.
"It is true in the last decades our social and family reality has evolved. Is it time for us to start to think again about our family regime in our civil code? Maybe. Today, the door is certainly open to a general reflection about our family regime," St-Arnaud said.
He said he would consult cabinet colleagues as well as legal and family experts before committing to a major reform of the laws.
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