High Court Ruling Sends Quebec Common-Law Rights Issue Back to Political Arena

By Blanchfield, Mike | The Canadian Press, January 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

High Court Ruling Sends Quebec Common-Law Rights Issue Back to Political Arena


Blanchfield, Mike, The Canadian Press


Divided high court OKs Quebec marriage laws

--

OTTAWA - Quebec's long-standing debate about the rights of common-law spouses versus those of their married counterparts was poised to return to the political arena Friday after a ruling by a deeply divided Supreme Court of Canada.

By the slimmest of majorities -- the deciding vote was cast by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin -- the high court said the country's most culturally distinct province does not have to give common-law couples the same rights as married couples.

The complex, detailed ruling issued Friday means the financial aspects of the province's family law regime are constitutional and do not have to be changed -- for now.

The ruling very likely marks the start of a new political discussion over the legal definition of marriage, Quebec's justice minister and lawyers for both sides suggest.

Despite the fact that one-third of all Quebec couples are unmarried, the province's Civil Code does not provide equal rights for those in common-law unions.

"We might be at the point where we need a real reflection on the whole of our family laws," said Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud.

"I'm not closing the door on that."

St-Arnaud said he's pleased the Supreme Court respected Quebec's laws.

But he said it might be time to consider updating the provincial legislation, which has not been touched in a generation, amid a skyrocketing number of common-law relationships in the province.

The case involves a woman and her former lover, a prominent Quebec businessman who contends he should not have to pay alimony because they were never legally married.

It's widely known as the Eric and Lola case, because the pair can't be identified under a provincial family law that protects the identity of their three children.

But as lawyers for both parties were quick to acknowledge Friday, the ruling will create broader political ripples beyond the he-said, she-said issues of this case.

"The implication for Quebec society is the ball is now back -- or should be back -- in the legislator's court," said Lola's lawyer Guy Pratte.

People in common-law unions should consider drafting their own contracts to protect their interests, but Pratte suggests that may not be preferable, or fair.

"Others will presumably think that is not adequate protection for themselves and their family and that they should put pressure on the Quebec legislators to review their regimes," he said.

"Let's not forget that, however, whether or not Quebec is different from other provinces, every other province affords at least a minimum of protection in respect of support for all these couples. …

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