The Citizen has been running a series of stories this week explaining the new Family Law Act in B.C.
On the surface, the new act seems like a common sense update of the Family Relations Act from 1979 but it's a game changer, both in letter and in spirit.
First, the spirit.
Even after the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, the family structure hadn't changed all that much. The Family Relations Act of 1979 addressed issues that had always been present, such as children born out of wedlock. "Shacking up" may be have the new thing but the vast majority of couples (exclusively heterosexual under the law at the time) still got married before they bought a place and had some kids.
How things have changed.
According to the Justice Ministry, the number of common-law families in B.C. is growing at a rate three time faster than the number of married families. Getting married for religious reasons is almost unheard of in 2013 and social reasons for getting married (community acceptance, family pressure, rite of passage, government and legal recognition and so on) have mostly evaporated.
Put another way, love and commitment have become detached from the tradition of marriage. Other than buying matching rings, throwing a party (and getting gifts!) and heading off on a nice holiday, there seems little reason to have a wedding in modern times.
Furthermore, there have been a growing number of couples with blended families and no marriage to seal the deal, a rare sight seen when the Family Relations Act was drafted and the Brady Bunch was on TV - and, of course, Mike and Carol were married.
Unfortunately, this created a legal limbo that couples tumbled into after the thrill was gone. What happened to the kids, the house, the savings, the pension, the debt, and the coin collection? What about inheritances? Who about the dogs and the cabin on the lake? What about money brought into the relationship?
It fell to case law and legal precedents. If nothing could be worked out, matters got settled in court, where only the lawyers won and the outcome was unpredictable.
Now here's a law that treats those couples as if they really are married. It is an unprecedented recognition of the diversity of the modern family.
In black and white, the new Family Relations Act codifies many of those complicated issues for the first time. For example, the best interests of the child isn't just something one of numerous factors for a judge to consider, it's now the only factor when decisions are made involving the child, regardless of how that may inconvenience the parents.
Sure, there is an opt-out clause, allowing common law couples to make their own separate legal agreements regarding division of assets, but those agreements have to be fair and reasonable, as well as agreed to when both parties are of sound mind. Unless there are significant sums (in the black or in the red) involved, it's unlikely most couples will even bother, meaning the Family Law Act will dictate to couples how their affairs will be handled at the end of the relationship.
It also forces these adults to try to sort it out in mediation, rather than clogging up the courts with their dispute.
According to the Globe and Mail, about 160,000 B.C. couples got married Monday, whether they wanted or not.
A toast to the newlyweds and the thoughtful and modern act that now regulates them.