The federal legislation governing divorces in Canada is the DA. The DA applies to legally married couples, including same sex couples as long as residency requirements for one spouse are met. It does not apply to common law couples or other unmarried couples. The provincial family law legislation in BC is the FLA, which applies to people in all relationships. The reason there are two statutes governing this area is the division of powers under sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which gives the federal government jurisdiction over “Marriage and Divorce” (s 91), while giving provincial governments jurisdiction over “The Solemnization of Marriage in the Province” and “Property and Civil Rights” (s 92).
1. Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of British Columbia has jurisdiction over both the DA and the FLA. Because all divorce claims must be heard under the DA, the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over divorce claims. The Supreme Court has concurrent jurisdiction with Provincial Court over guardianship, parenting arrangements and support for children (including common law couples) while division of property is under exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. If a Supreme Court order for custody, access, or support is made under the DA, that order supersedes any existing FLA order. However, given the new FLA and change of terms under the provincial legislation (custody, guardianship and access to guardianship, parenting arrangements and contract), there is likely to be litigation regarding which act applies and when.
An uncontested divorce does not require a personal appearance in Supreme Court. Evidence can be submitted by affidavit with the application for the Divorce Order, called a “Desk Order Divorce”. In fact, parties are required to submit applications for Divorce by way of a “Desk Order” unless there is a reason to bring it on by way of application in Chambers.
2. Provincial Court
The Provincial Court only has jurisdiction to hear matters under the FLA and cannot hear any claim under the DA, including divorce applications. The Provincial Court can make orders or vary original Provincial Court orders relating to guardianship, parenting arrangements, contact, child support, and spousal support. The Court does not have jurisdiction to deal with claims for the division of property under the FLA.
C. Requirements for a Divorce
To obtain a divorce in a particular province, one of the parties to the claim must have been “ordinarily resident” in that province for at least one year immediately preceding the presentation of the Notice of Family Claim (DA, s 3(1)). A person can be “ordinarily resident” in a province and still travel or have casual or temporary residence outside the province.
An Act to Amend the Civil Marriage Act received Royal Assent and came into force on June 26, 2013. It allows non-resident couples married in Canada to divorce in Canada if they cannot get a divorce where they live.
There must not be another divorce proceeding involving the same parties in another jurisdiction. If two actions are pending and the proceeding filed first is not discontinued within 30 days after it is presented, the first Court will have exclusive jurisdiction (DA s 3(2)) to hear and determine the divorce proceeding. Parties must submit a clearance form, filled out online and printed, at the time of filing the Notice of Family Claim and Marriage Certificate.
2. A Valid Marriage: Proof of Marriage
Section 52(1) of the Evidence Act, RSBC 1996, c 124 states that if it is alleged in a civil proceeding that a ceremony of marriage took place in BC or another jurisdiction, either of the following can serve as evidence that the ceremony took place:
- a) the evidence of a person present at the ceremony (less common); or
- b) a document purporting to be the original or a certified copy of the certificate of marriage (the church certificate is not acceptable). Note: A certified copy is often not accepted by the Registry and all efforts should be made to obtain the original marriage certificate.
The simplest way is to use a certificate of marriage or registration of marriage. Only if the certificate or registration of marriage is not available should the evidence of a person present at the ceremony be used. An official translation of the marriage certificate and a translator’s affidavit must be provided if the marriage certificate is in any language other than English. French language marriage certificates must also be translated. The Court may require further proof that the marriage is valid if the documents evidencing the marriage appear questionable. Immigration and landing documents can be used as additional proof of marriage in these situations. In British Columbia, a party can obtain an original marriage certificate from Vital Statistics by filling out a request form. See the Vital Statistics website.
If a marriage certificate absolutely cannot be provided (e.g. the records cannot be obtained from the parties’ country of origin or were destroyed), and if there are no witnesses to the marriage available, a party to the divorce proceeding can attempt to prove her or his marriage by attesting to “cohabitation and reputation” in an affidavit. The Court will hear evidence of the couple’s “cohabitation and reputation” from the parties and witnesses. Where there are witnesses to the marriage available, a witness will be required to sign and swear an affidavit stating that: he or she was at the ceremony, it was conducted in accordance with the laws and religion of the country where the parties married, and to the best of his or her knowledge, the two parties were in fact married according to their law and traditions.
3. Grounds for Divorce
In accordance with s 8(1) of the DA, either or both spouses may apply for a divorce on the ground that there has been a breakdown of their marriage as evidenced by separation for a year, adultery, or physical or mental cruelty (see below). For the divorce action to succeed, the claimant must have valid grounds under s 8(2)(a) or 8(2)(b), and the respondent must be unable to raise a valid defence. Most divorces are based on separation rather than adultery or cruelty, in part because the accusing party must prove adultery and/or cruelty on the balance of probabilities. Where a claim for divorce based on adultery or cruelty has been filed for more than one year before the application for divorce is heard, the Court will usually grant the divorce on the ground of one year separation.
Note the decision of McPhail v McPhail, 2001 BCCA 250, in which the Court found that, where both the grounds of cruelty and the grounds of a one year separation for divorce exist, it would be appropriate for a trial judge to exercise his or her discretion to grant the divorce on the grounds of a one year separation (no-fault) instead of on cruelty (fault). This was extended in Aquilini v. Aquilini, 2013 BCSC 217 to state that a one year separation should be used as the grounds for divorce instead of adultery where both exist.
D. Divorces Based on Separation: s 8(2)(a)
1. Separation - One Year
Under the DA, neither party needs to prove “fault” to get a divorce. Most divorces will proceed under s 8(2)(a), separation for a period of at least one year. Although the pleadings starting the action can be filed immediately upon separation, the Divorce Order cannot be sought until one day after the parties have been separated for one year.
The ground of separation requires recognition by one of the parties that the marriage is at an end. It is not necessary that the parties form a joint intention. It is also not necessary that the two parties live in separate homes, although they must live “separate and apart” and demonstrate their intention to separate. For example the parties may, move into separate bedrooms in the same home.
2. 90-Day Reconciliation Period
Any number of reconciliation attempts may be made during the separation year without affecting the application for divorce. However, if:
- the length of any reconciliation attempt exceeds 90 days; or
- the aggregate total length of reconciliations exceeds 90 days, then the time for calculating the one year period of separation must start over again with the first day of calculation being the first day of separation after the 90+ day reconciliation ended (s 8(3)(b)(ii)).
3. Living Under the Same Roof
Some couples may choose to continue to live under the same roof after they have decided to separate for financial reasons or for the sake of the children. Indications of separation include: they have separate bank accounts, separate bedrooms, cook their own meals, do their own laundry, etc. (i.e., if there is an obvious severance of the conjugal relationship), they can still be considered separated.
This is the case for the DA, though it should be noted that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) takes a different position when it comes to taxes and child benefit payments. The CRA does not recognize living separate and apart under the same roof for the purpose of tax benefits unless there is a separate suite in the home.
E. Divorces Based on Cruelty or Adultery: Divorce Act, s 8(2)(b)
Divorces based on separation require at least one year to pass before the divorce order can be granted. Divorce claims based on the ground of cruelty or adultery can result in an immediate divorce.
1. Adultery: s 8(2)(b)(i)
Adultery is voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person other than his or her spouse. The meaning of “adultery” includes sexual acts outside the marriage with a person of the same sex (SEP v DDP,  BCJ No 1971 (BCSC)). The standard of proof for adultery is the same as the civil standard: the Court must be satisfied on a balance of probabilities (see Adolph v Adolph (1964), 51 W.W.R. 42 (BCC.A)). Proof can come in the form of an affidavit from one or both of the adulterers.
The Court will require proof that the adulterous conduct was not forgiven by the innocent spouse (condonation) and that the conduct was not conspired towards for the purposes of obtaining the divorce (collusion and connivance, see below).
2. Physical or Mental Cruelty: s 8(2)(b)(ii)
The test for cruelty is subjective. The question asked in a cruelty case is whether the conduct is of such a kind as to render intolerable the continued cohabitation of the spouses. There is no objective standard in the sense that certain conduct will constitute cruelty in every case while other conduct will not. The respondent’s conduct may constitute cruelty even if there is no intent to be cruel. What has to be determined is the effect of the conduct on a particular person, rather than the nature of the acts committed (Burr v Burr,  BCJ No 743).
If the spouses are still cohabiting, the Court will infer that the conduct was not intolerable unless the claimant had no means or opportunity for leaving (Cridge v Cridge (1974), 12 RFL 57, (BCSC)). Lack of income, children at home, and a difficulty with the English language may qualify as reasons for continuing cohabitation.
Again, to make a case based on cruelty, there must be proof on the balance of probabilities. Things that could be entered as evidence in this area include medical evidence such as charts and doctors' statements.
F. Why a Divorce Application May Be Rejected
Collusion is, simply put, both parties conspiring to obtain a divorce. A more expansive definition can be found in s 11(4) of the DA.
Collusion is an absolute bar to a divorce on the grounds of cruelty or adultery.
Condonation consists of forgiving a marital offence that would otherwise be a ground for divorce. There are three requirements: knowledge of the matrimonial offence by the claimant; forgiveness of the offence; and actual reinstatement of the relationship. A single attempt or a series of attempts at reconciliation totalling less than 90 days does not qualify as condonation.
Condonation is a discretionary bar to a divorce. If the matter is raised, the onus is on the claimant to disprove it.
Connivance occurs when one spouse encourages the other to commit adultery or cruelty. There must be a “corrupt intention... to promote or encourage either initiation or the continuance... or it may consist of a passive acquiescence....”. Keeping watch on the other spouse does not constitute passive acquiescence: Maddock v Maddock,  OR 810 at 818, 16 DLR (2d) 325 (CA).
Connivance is a discretionary bar to a divorce, similar in effect to condonation.
4. Discretion of the Court
In cases of condonation or connivance, the claim for divorce will be dismissed unless, in the Court’s opinion, the public interest would be better served by granting the divorce.
The Court may also reject an application for divorce where: a divorce is pending in another jurisdiction; a marriage certificate or registration of marriage has not been provided; there are defects in the application materials; or there are defects in the form of draft order provided with the application. The Court registry is very particular about the content and form of both the applications materials and the draft order, which may result in the rejection of the application before it gets to a judge.
5. Divorce Will Not Be Granted Until Child Support Is Settled
In a divorce proceeding, it is the duty of the Court to satisfy itself that “reasonable arrangements” have been made for the support of any children of the marriage, typically having regard to the Federal Child Support Guidelines. If such arrangements have not been made, s 11(1)(b) of the DA requires the Court to stay the granting of the divorce. When stepchildren are involved, the Court will determine child support requirements for a stepfather or stepmother on a case-by-case basis. The definition of “child of the marriage” in s 2 of the DA is broad enough to include children for whom one spouse “stands in the place of a parent”.
G. Separation Agreements
1. General – Family Law Act
The FLA defines a written agreement as an agreement that is in writing and signed by all parties (s 1 FLA). A separation agreement is a legal contract that generally provides for a division of property and debt, the support of a dependent spouse, and for the support, guardianship and parenting arrangements of a child by a parent.
A separation agreement can deal with some or all of these issues. It can eliminate much of the emotional disturbance involved in courtroom proceedings, and provide the parties with an arrangement to which they have both agreed, as opposed to a Court order, with which neither party may be happy. Part 2, Section 6 outlines that parties are able to make agreements to resolve disputes and respecting matters at issue in a family law dispute and subject to the FLA, the agreement is binding on the parties.
The overarching test for any changes to agreements made regarding Part 4 of the FLA (guardianship, parenting arrangement contact) is the best interest of the child test in section 37 of the FLA. Children’s interests are now the only consideration.
A separation agreement between spouses can also deal with division of family property and family debt, as well as any assets excluded from division.
Section 85 of the FLA excludes the following from the division of family property: property acquired by a spouse before the relationship between the spouses began;
- inheritances to a spouse;
- gifts to a spouse from a third party;
- a settlement or an award of damages to a spouse as compensation for injury or loss, unless the settlement or award represents compensation for
- loss to both spouses, or
- lost income of a spouse;
- money paid or payable under an insurance policy, other than a policy respecting property, except any portion that represents compensation for
- loss to both spouses, or
- lost income of a spouse;
- property referred to in any of the paragraphs above that is held in trust for the benefit of a spouse;
- a spouse's beneficial interest in property held in a discretionary trust
- to which the spouse did not contribute, and
- that is settled by a person other than the spouse;
- property derived from property or the disposition of property referred to in any of the above paragraphs.
It is essential that each spouse be aware of the potential influence of any agreement on future expectations, and the legal implications of that agreement on questions of ownership and title in family assets. Each spouse should have independent legal advice, even in cases where the parties seem to be in agreement on the terms of a separation agreement. If a separation agreement has been signed and one party did not have independent legal advice this may go towards evidence of unfair contracting and it may be possible to overturn the contract.
It is possible that a separation agreement containing provisions for support may be regarded by the Court as evidence of liability on the part of the supporting spouse. While the agreement does not usurp the Court’s jurisdiction in support, guardianship or parenting arrangements, the Court will consider the terms of the agreement when making the order. Whether the Court will uphold the terms of the agreement changes depending on the subject matter of the agreement. See sections of the FLA that apply to each subject matter. Note also that any orders respecting agreements are subject to s 214 of the FLA.
In addition to property settlements, guardianship or parenting arrangements, and support, the separation agreement may embrace any other matters the parties wish to include in it, and often includes estate provisions, releases, penalties for breach of the contract, etc. A separation agreement can be more flexible than a Court order. For example, a Court order cannot contain contingent terms, but a separation agreement can.
- NOTE: Because of the complicated nature of separation agreements, clients who wish to make a separation agreement should be given family law referrals.
H. Other Points to Note
1. Jurisdiction to Vary Proceedings
Section 5(1) of the DA allows a Court in a province other than the Court of original jurisdiction (that is, the Court which originally made an order) to vary an order made under the DA if:
- one of the former spouses is habitually resident in the province; or
- both former spouses accept the jurisdiction of the Court.
2. Adjournment for Reconciliation under the DA
Where at any stage in a divorce proceeding it appears to the Court from the nature of the case, the evidence, or the attitude of either or both spouses that there is a possibility of the reconciliation of the spouses, s 10(2) of the DA allows the Court to adjourn the proceedings to give the spouse an opportunity to reconcile. The Court can also, with the spouses' consent, nominate a marriage counselor, or in special circumstances, some other suitable person to assist a reconciliation.
3. Alteration of Effective Date of Divorce
Under s 12 of the DA, a divorce takes effect on the 31st day after the day on which the judgment granting the divorce is rendered. The 31 days allow for the appeal period to expire. The Court may order that the divorce take effect before this if it is of the opinion there are special circumstances and the spouses agree that no appeal from the judgment will be taken. The impending birth of a child and remarriage are generally not considered compelling reasons to shorten the appeal period. However, one may file an appeal waiver to remarry sooner.
4. Support Order After Divorce Has Been Granted
Under s 15 of the DA, for the purposes of child support, “spouse” means either of two persons a male or female who are married to each other (s 2(1)) and also includes “former spouse”. This means that a former spouse may be able to get a support order after the divorce has been granted.
A form of mediation for separating couples is provided by the Family Justice Counsellors of the Ministry of Attorney General. It is intended to steer people out of the Court system. Similar to the small claims process, if the two parties come to an agreement through mediation they may choose to sign a binding contract after the process. Should either party choose not to sign, the agreement will not be binding. There are offices throughout BC, which can be located using the blue pages of the telephone book under BC Corrections Branch, or Family Court: Probation and Family Court Services. The service is confidential and free. Family Justice Counsellors cannot deal with property and debt division.
There is also the Family Mediation Practicum Program which aims to provide affordable mediation services to participants while also offering practical training to new mediators (along with an experienced mentor mediator). See Family Mediation Practicum Project.
Parties may wish to retain a private family law mediator to assist them in mediating a resolution to their family law matter. They may contact the British Columbia Mediator Roster Society for names of family law mediators. See British Columbia Mediator Roster Society. Not all family law mediators are listed on the roster, and there are many family lawyers who are specifically trained and accredited in family law mediation.
The new FLA favours out of Court resolution of issues, and even gives courts the authority to refer parties to counselling and mediation (s 4 FLA). It also formally recognizes the role of and duties of family dispute resolution professionals (Section 1-8), family justice counsellors (section 1-10), and parenting coordinators (Division 3).
6. Collaborative Divorce
Another option for parties dealing with family law matters is the Collaborative Divorce Model. This offers an option for parties to resolve disputes respectfully and without going to Court. Parties work out a negotiated settlement with the help of collaboratively trained professionals including (as needed) lawyers, divorce coaches, child specialists and financial specialists. This allows the parties to negotiate a settlement without the threat of Court. If the parties are unable to resolve matters through the Collaborative process, the Collaborative professionals will not be involved in Court proceedings. See the websites listed in Collaborative Divorce for more information.
7. Rule 7-1: Judicial Case Conferences
In cases where relief other than a simple divorce is sought in the Supreme Court, Rule 7-1 of the Supreme Court Family Rules (British Columbia) requires that a judicial case conference (JCC) be held before a party to a contested family law proceeding delivers a notice of application or affidavit in support of an interlocutory application to the other party. The purpose of a JCC is to help the parties to come to an agreement on some or all of the matters at issue, to identify the issues that are in dispute and those that are not, explore alternatives to litigation, to schedule disclosure, discoveries, the exchange of documents, and to schedule interim applications and the trial date. JCCs may be heard by either judges or masters and are set for approximately 1-1/2 hours. Parties can set more than one Judicial Case Conference.
8. Divorce Law and First Nations People
Special concerns arise in cases involving First Nation People registered under the Indian Act, RSC 1996, c 23,s 68. The Indian Act sets out guidelines for and definitions of Aboriginal people, and defines who is eligible for “status”. Only “status” people are affected by the legislation under the Indian Act. One spouse’s treaty payment may be directed to the other “where the Ministry is satisfied he deserted his spouse or family without sufficient cause, conducted himself in such a manner as to justify the refusal of his spouse or family to live with him, or has been separated by imprisonment from his spouse and family” (Indian Act, s 68). As well, reserve land allocated by a certificate of possession cannot be dealt with in the same manner as a matrimonial home as the rules in the FLA do not apply to reserve land. However, in such cases, the Court may ask that the spouse in possession of the reserve land pay cash compensation to the other spouse (George v George (1997), 30 BCLR (3d) 107). Keep in mind that most provincial laws apply to Aboriginal people and reserve land, unless they are in direct conflict with the Indian Act. Further, courts will almost always take the cultural identity of the children into consideration when making an order for custody; see e.g. D.H. v H.M.,  SCJ No 22, and see Van de Perre v Edwards,  SCJ No 60.
Furthermore, for First Nation Peoples living on reserves, the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act (S.C. 2013, c. 20) applies and can affect the division of assets in the case of divorce or separation (see ss 43, 46).
9. Other Procedural Options
There are many other procedural options available to parties in Family Law disputes. Section 8 of the FLA requires counsel and other Family Dispute Resolution Professionals to discuss the advisability of the various types of family dispute resolution, which include those listed above as well as the following:
- (a) Mediation
- (b) Family Law Arbitration. See http://www.familylaw.lss.bc.ca/help/who_Arbitrators.php for more information
- (c) Med/Arb, which is a combination of both Mediation and Arbitration.
- (d) Judicial Settlement Conferences pursuant to Rule 7-2 of the Supreme Court Family Rules
- (e) Family Case Conferences pursuant to Rule 7(1) of the Provincial Court (Family) Rules
- (f) The use of a Parenting Coordinator to address ongoing parenting and communication issues between the parties after an order or agreement has been reached for the parenting arrangement. For more information see http://www.bcparentingcoordinators.com/
I. Availability of Divorce Services in BC
1. Legal Aid
Legal Aid will provide extremely limited assistance to those who meet their income requirements. Clients must also have a risk or history of family violence, or a risk or history of child abduction, to be eligible for this service. Legal Aid will not assist with divorces.
All lawyers will expect an initial payment from their client. The amount of the initial retainer will vary depending on the lawyer’s hourly rate and his or her estimation of the complexity of the case. The cost of a simple, uncontested divorce begins at approximately $1,000 and up. Advise clients to use the Lawyer Referral Service (604) 687-3221 or 1-800-663-1919. The first half-hour will only cost $25, with the lawyer charging his or her standard rate thereafter.
To minimize costs when retaining a lawyer, clients should be advised to:
- negotiate the cost of legal services in advance, so they do not come as a surprise;
- personally collect all necessary documentation rather than pay the lawyer to do it;
- call the lawyer only when imparting necessary information (every phone call costs money);
- use Family Court and Supreme Court resources (such as Family Justice Counsellors) if appropriate;
- ask for regular or scheduled billing to monitor escalating legal costs;
- carefully read all correspondence sent by the lawyer; and
- treat the lawyer as a professional.
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