Canada expected to see spike in divorces as courts reopen, lawyers say
TORONTO -- Canada's courts could see a surge in divorce proceedings once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, according to family lawyers.
Toronto law firm Nussbaum Family Law said it is experiencing a 20 per cent increase in inquiries from people looking to split from their spouses than before the novel coronavirus outbreak, and one of its lawyers predicts that Canada's divorce rate will soar after the health crisis.
"There will definitely be an increase in divorce, and an increase in separation," senior family lawyer Barry Nussbaum said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "We're following the similar lines of Italy and China where COVID hit first, and they're already showing statistics of increasing separation."
Nussbaum told CTVNews.ca that couples already dealing with marital issues when lockdown restrictions were implemented have seen tensions boil to the surface after being cooped up at home together. He added that the pandemic has also spurred breakups due to financial stress, boredom, lack of alone time and space, and conflicts regarding kids and household responsibilities.
"People aren't used to being at home all the time in their apartment or their house with kids. Now, they have to entertain the kids, help with the education, and their jobs are now triple if they do have a job and if they don't have a job, they have the stress of not earning income so all this adds to difficulty maintaining a positive relationship with your spouse," Nussbaum said.
"If your relationship is already on shaky ground, that can put you over the top," he added.
STRESS, QUARANTINE REASONS FOR BREAKUPS
Instead of waving goodbye in the morning and spending eight hours apart at work, some couples don't even have a door to separate them from their spouse, which can cause tension in a relationship, according to B.C. family lawyer Briana Hardwick.
"I get where people in those situations are coming from and I've really tried to encourage them to understand what their rights are… but try and wait until all of these extraordinary pressures have abated a bit because I think they are really pressing the boundaries of relationships that otherwise can be quite functional," Hardwick said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Hardwick, who is the head of the family law department at Rush Ihas Hardwick LLP, told CTVNews.ca that she has done between six and 10 new separation consultations every week since COVID-19 hit.
In addition to couples that are experiencing stress brought on by COVID-19, Hardwick said she is also seeing an “entire subset of relationships -- particularly long-term relationships where people effectively live separate lives” in which partners are considering their separation options.
"They have their own activities, they have their own friends, they have their own sort of social circle, just basically they were living two separate lives, and reasonably contently. Then all of a sudden, that is compressed and fundamentally changed and I have seen a significant number of those people... who have now realized that they no longer want to live in that sort of two parallel life scenario,” Hardwick said. She explained that these couples were happy living separate lives, but now can’t stand being stuck at home with their partner.
Hardwick added that a potential second wave of infections has couples concerned they may have to live through their current situation for longer than initially thought.
"Because of the fact that we keep hearing about the prospect of the second wave, there may be another sort of situation where we have to stay at home for extended periods of time, and many people don't seem very keen on doing this again," Hardwick said.
Having practised as a divorce lawyer for 32 years in Vancouver, Stuart Zukerman, owner and senior counsel at Zukerman Law Group, said couples don’t have the mental capacity to handle only having one another's company.
"Many couples do not have the communication and empathy skills required to spend 24/7 with each other. They need the 5 days a week of interacting with coworkers and occasional weekend time with friends and family apart from their spouse in order to make those times that they do spend with their spouse more engaging or in some cases more palatable," Zukerman said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
He added that isolation can also exacerbate previous problems in a relationship.
"If there are problems [or] cracks in a relationship then they will certainly be magnified or worsened when that couple is isolated together for weeks or months as is occurring with the COVID-19 pandemic," Zukerman said, adding that the majority of new clients he has spoken to say they "just can't stand" their partner anymore.
DELAYS IN GETTING DIVORCED
While courts have started to reopen for some operations across the country, Nussbaum said those looking to get divorced will likely experience a delay.
"There has been a backlog in the courts because the courts were closed and some are still closed for a period of time. People who had been interested to get divorce who started the process, they're going to be first in line and that will cause delay," Nussbaum said.
However, he said the court is adopting new measures to work through the backlog.
"The court is becoming more technologically savvy by allowing many of their hearings to be by Zoom or over the phone," Nussbaum said. "This has sort of pushed the courts to get in line with 21st century technology which historically they haven't been so it may move things quicker."
Nussbaum predicts that the courts will adopt these technologies and use them in some circumstances after the pandemic, but said there will likely still be a backlog for some time.
Hardwick suggests couples consider options that don’t involve the courts while they wait for their divorce proceedings.
"Issues relating to support, whether or not that be supportive of child or supporting [a] spouse, and then we have property division issues, and the general premise at law is that you have to solve all of those issues," Hardwick said. "For people that are capable of negotiating either on their own or with the assistance of a lawyer, they will still be able to resolve those corollary issues, without any significant impact from COVID."
She recommends spouses consider mediation or arbitration to help resolve their marital issues for the time being.
"It's not as though there's no impact with respect to resolving matters outside of court, that certainly is a bit of a challenge, but I think we have more flexibility amid the pandemic outside of it," Hardwick said.
Zeina El-Sayed, a divorce mediator and paralegal based in Calgary, told CTVNews.ca that she has seen a 60 per cent increase in people inquiring about her services compared to before COVID-19 hit.
Amid the pandemic, El-Sayed said she has been trying to offer alternative solutions to her clients that have had divorce proceedings put on hold.
"I always encourage people to try to physically separate because living together in the same house, under all the stress that's going on internally and externally, can affect the kids and their well being," El-Sayed said. "For example, if one of them is able to move in with a family member or with a friend."
As a mediator, El-Sayed said she is there for the best interest of all parties involved.
"Through our mediation we make sure that we provide them with information and resources to be able to divide their finances fairly, to co-parent their kids in a successful way, and to be able to think ahead post-COVID to really be able to agree on what's going to work for each of them," she said.
For those who cannot physically separate, Nussbaum recommends that spouses figure out a way to have some alone time.
"If you're able to go to work or you're able to go out in your region, it's very important to get outside because it's normal and healthy and space is important. It does help clients deal with the stress of what they're going through," Nussbaum said.
However, he cautioned that couples waiting on divorce proceedings should not "take the law into their own hands." Nussbaum said people should not try to work out their own separation agreements, split custody or resolve child support issues without consulting a lawyer.
"Family Law is unique because it is very relatable. All of us have parents, many of us have siblings, many of us know people who have gotten divorced, it's not something that's foreign to us. So people naturally think 'I know what to do, I know what custody is' -- biggest mistake that someone can make," Nussbaum said.
While family law may seem relatable to the average person, Nussbaum explained that the laws are always changing. He said couples should get legal advice before they take any action.
"You have to look at it the same as going to a doctor. If you have a problem that is not the common cold, and you're not sure what it is, you don't open your medicine cabinet and start self-medicating. You go to your doctor so its same type of thing," Nussbaum said.
PANDEMIC NOT FIXING PREVIOUS RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS
Despite more time spent together amid the pandemic, El-Sayed said this has not necessarily brought couples closer together. She said clients who initially inquired about divorce mediation before the pandemic have reach out to her again because COVID-19 has solidified their decision to separate.
"After people have had this additional shock of COVID and try to make sense of it, they try to make sense of the relationship again. Everybody has had the chance to sit with themselves and realize they don't want this and so they’re ready to move ahead again," El-Sayed said.
El-Sayed said the pandemic has forced couples to confront problems they may have previously been ignoring.
"The situation with COIVD has given people the chance to be like 'Well, this is a problem and I cannot run from it anymore'," she said. "I think people have come to a conclusion that this is not working, whether they have the money or they don’t, and find it necessary to move on with separation and divorce."
Laura Paris, an associate lawyer at Shulman and Partners in Toronto, said in a phone interview Wednesday that she has seen a similar trend among her clients.
"Parties that are living together still and are in the midst of a divorce, they asked for things to go on hold given that things are already kind of toxic. There's already a bit of animosity in the household to begin with given that they're going through a separation, add the dynamic of the pandemic on top of that, it may create a more of a toxic environment that isn't necessarily in their best interest," Paris said.
Paris said couples have paused their divorce proceedings to deal with other challenges the pandemic has brought on at home such as homeschooling and financial concerns.
"We're finding that people are asking us to take a break on their file right now so they can get things stabilized at home and adjust to this ‘new norm’ before we start working back on the file," she said.
However, Paris added that most of these couples have chosen to move forward with their cases in the last month as reopenings across the country continue.
CONCERNS ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Even though court operations have been on hold amid the pandemic, Nussbaum said the court is "always open" when a spouse is concerned for their safety or the safety of their children.
"The court system fundamentally works and if there is an urgent matter, for example your spouse ran off with the children to his or her parents without telling you, you can get into court the next day," Nussbaum said.
He acknowledged that this may be an extreme example, but said urgent cases do take precedence.
"You can get in front of a judge immediately, and get an urgent order. So the people whose matters are urgent will get relief very quickly," Nussbaum said. "It's always been that way and continues to be that way."
Paris added that courts are also increasing their capacity for hearing urgent cases as health restrictions continue to be lifted.
"The good thing is that while court operations have been significantly limited when it does come to matters which includes domestic violence, we are getting clearance for issues like that," Paris said.
When there are kids involved, Paris said spouses should not wait to get a lawyer or the courts involved even during a pandemic.
"If you are living in a more toxic environment right now and you do have kids, you don't want to be putting these proceedings on hold," Paris said. "The main thing to think about is are you putting your kids in an environment that may not be in their best interest?"
Paris said it is important for spouses to recognize when a relationship is past the point of saving.
"As much as we want to encourage reconciliation where we can… When people come and knock on our door [it's] because they've already made the decision to be separated," Paris said.