The end of “custody” and “access”

A survey of Canadian family lawyers shows most opposed to a presumption that children should spend close to equal time with their divorced or separated parents, but overwhelming support for changing the outdated, confrontational terms currently used to describe the “winners” and “losers” in cases involving children:

Canadian family law lawyers and judges reported that an average of 46 per cent of their cases involve some form of equal parenting time (“joint physical custody,” “shared custody” or “shared residence”), in which the children spend at least 40 per cent of their time with each parent. Further, an average of 68 per cent of their cases involve some form of shared parenting (“joint legal custody” or “joint guardianship”). Thus, this survey suggests that roughly two thirds of cases involve some form of what may be broadly viewed as shared parenting.

The respondents also reported a substantial increase in the use of roughly equal parenting time over the past five years (31 per cent said that this had increased substantially, 51 per cent increased somewhat, 17 per cent said it stayed about the same and only one per cent report reported a decrease). Equal time cases, however, are still a minority of shared parenting cases. In only 13 per cent of their cases was there a provision for limited contact with one parent, and respondents report that there is no provision for contact with a parent in only three per cent of their cases.

A clear majority of the respondents (77 per cent) did not support the enactment of a presumption of equal parenting time, as proposed in Bill C-560. However, a substantial majority of the respondents (78 per cent) support the amendment of the Divorce Act to use language other than “custody” and “access,” such as through the of phraseology as “parental responsibility,” “parenting time” or other similar concepts. Of note, the majority of respondents (55 per cent) were from BC or Alberta, where the provincial legislation has already been reformed to include presumptions of mutual parental guardianship and to use the concepts of “parental responsibilities” and “parenting time” as the basis for making post-separation parenting arrangements.

Many of the respondents explained the need to change the language of “custody” and “access” because those terms are “adversarial” and “proprietary.” One respondent commented that “custody … implies that the custodial parent has possession, or control, or ownership rights to the children, while the access parent has something substantially less.” Another observed that they “are extremely dated terms and concepts.”

However, many respondents expressed concern that enacting legislation to a presumption of equal parenting time could cause harm to children. One wrote: “some children do not function well in this type of schedule, and it would lead to substantially more litigation, in my opinion, if we had to start with that presumption.” Another stated: “presumptions have no place in the formulation of the best interests of the child … this is fact-dependent and should be based on a holistic view and the unique factual circumstances implicit with the determination.”

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