By Shannon Quesnel
The new B.C. Family Law Act has more teeth to protect women and children caught in abusive relationships and that's good news, according to two staff members at the South Okanagan Women in Need Society.
Executive director Eleanor Summer said a restraining order placed against one spouse was formerly enforced through the civil system. Under the new act, which took effect Monday, family law protection orders have replaced restraining orders. Breaching a protection order is now considered a criminal offence. Police can respond to violations of protection orders and prevent bad situations from becoming worse.
“It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out ,” Summer said. She is concerned police may not have enough resources to properly enforce this part of the act.
The new act also makes life easier for families to solve domestic disputes, broadens the definition of family violence to include psychological and emotional abuse and treats common-law relationships as having the same legal standing as marriages.
The differences between the old Family Relations Act and the new one are significant.
Summer said the old act had a huge effect on how she went about her job working with women and children who are in trouble. The new act has been a learning experience for her, community outreach staff person Sam Lucier, legal aid workers and lawyers practicing family law.
“When something changes as massively as this, there is going to be a breaking-in time,” Lucier said.
The society provides counseling for women who are often in abusive relationships. They tell clients their rights and help them navigate the legal and bureaucratic systems. The society also provides a shelter for women and their children. Right now many of the society's clients, about 900 of them, are unaware of the changes the new act brings.
One of the bigger changes are the common-law relationship property rules. Under old rules, when a common-law relationship ended, both spouses kept what they came in with. If one spouse owned a house that spouse leaves with the house.
Under the new act, if the house is bought during a relationship, and the relationship lasts two years or more, both parties get half of the home's value.
“That's great,” Summer said. She has dealt with clients who have been left out in the cold, sometimes literally, when a spouse ups and leaves town with everything he owned. She remembered one woman in her senior years who was left behind with a tiny pension when her husband, who had a much larger pension, moved to another province.
Children also benefit more from the new act. In the new act, children are the greatest consideration. The new rules and tools will help keep families out of the court system and gets both spouses to share parental responsibility provided there is no abuse.
Abuse also used to be handled differently under the old rules.
“The belief was once mom and dad were separated the violence is taken care of,” Lucier said. “Which is a myth.”
Some angry spouses, typically the men, could track down their former mates and continue the abuse. With the new act it is hoped the threat of criminal prosecution will prevent this type of behaviour.
The new act also means a woman can move out of the community with her children without automatically going to court. Lucier said a woman only has to give 60 days notice to her spouse. The man has to apply to the court in order to argue the case.
Summer and Lucier were generally optimistic about the new law. They still have concerns though. For one, without cases automatically going to the courts, some spouses might have to hire private counselors to settle disputes. Before, they could rely on government-paid legal aid.
There has also been some friction. Before the act took place on Monday one man threatened his girlfriend to sign an agreement so she wouldn't try claim any of his property if they broke up.
Summer did say, however, the provincial government is constantly seeking feedback from professionals like herself, lawyers, etc. The government is keen on monitoring the effects of the new law.
We have more information about the new act here. For anyone seeking help, go to http://www.sowins.com, call (250) 493-4366 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact a reporter for this story, email Shannon Quesnel at email@example.com or call 250-488-3065.