Canada's Department of Justice has introduced changes to the Divorce Act aimed at protecting children from violence that might overflow from their parents' conflicts. (auremar/Shutterstock)

Canada updates its Divorce Act to provide more protection for children

The first major changes in over 20 years to Canada’s Divorce Act are now law.

Among other things, the changes include a list of factors that courts must take into consideration when weighing the best interests of children.

“Children who experience family violence can suffer physical and psychological harm. Family violence can change their brain development, potentially leading to the development of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and social problems that can last a long time,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.

“In family law, all decisions about children are based on what is in the best interests of the child. The new Divorce Act has a list of factors for judges to consider when deciding what is in a child’s best interests, and the most important factor is always a child’s physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being.”

Children pay a high price when they are caught up in parental conflict. (Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock)

The changes, the Department of Justice says, were made because “family violence can take many forms and can cause significant harm to both victims and witnesses.”

Initially set for last July, the changes were delayed by the pandemic and took effect on Monday.

The updated Act defines family violence as “any conduct that is threatening, forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, or causes a family member to fear for their safety or the safety of another individual.”

And the new definition includes a child’s exposure to acts of violence, saying that violence need not rise to the level of a criminal offence to be considered family violence.

The previous version made no reference to family violence, according to the Department of Justice. 

David Lametti speaks with the media following a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill on February 25, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

“The changes that we have made to modernize the Divorce Act have been a long time coming and I am proud that they are coming into force today,” Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti, said in a statement. 

“We understand how important the changes to the Divorce Act are to Canadians affected by separation and divorce, especially to vulnerable family members,” Lametti said.

The CBC’s Paula Duhatschek reports that in addition to family violence, the legislation also establishes guidelines for when one parent wants to relocate with a child. 

The term “custody order” has been replaced by the more neutral “parenting order,” which aims to discourage the idea there are winners and losers in these decisions. 

The first major changes to Canada’s Divorce Act come into effect Monday. Among other changes, the Act now sets out a specific list of factors that courts must consider when weighing the best interests of a child — including the impact of family violence. (Tiko Aramyan/Shutterstock)

Duhatschek reports that in response to questions from CBC News, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said in a statement the office plans to “actively monitor” the outcome of the amendments through case law, academic research and ongoing consultations. 

The statement went on to say officials plan to work with provinces and territories to address any issues that arise. 

“The Department of Justice has also trained lawyers and justice system officials about the legal changes around family violence, and is developing further public education materials and an online course on the same topic,” the statement says.

With files from CBC News (Paula Duhatschek)

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