Should a Child Have His/Her Own Lawyer in Custody Cases?

DSC00280The Ontario Court of Appeal has recently answered the question posed above in a case where a father asked the court to appoint a private lawyer for his two children, where he also sought to increase his parenting time with them. (Mader v. McCormick 2018 ONCA 340)

The parties separated in 2010 and negotiated a parenting schedule that gave the children’s mother primary residence with the father having overnight access every second weekend and after school access 4 nights a week. In 2013 the father sought additional parenting time and the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (“OCL”) was appointed by the court to represent the children. The OCL is a government agency in Ontario that is available by court appointment to act on behalf of children in family law, child protection and estate cases.

The OCL advised the children’s father that after speaking with their clients they ascertained the children were not in favour of additional time with their father. The father then abandoned his application.

In 2015 the father retired and with more leisure time again advanced a claim to have additional parenting time. He also requested the appointment of the OCL but his request was denied.

In 2016 the father took another stab at his desire to have more parenting time, however, this time he asked the court to appoint a private lawyer to represent his children who were both now young teenagers. Two lower courts denied his request for the appointment of a private lawyer for multiple reasons including their reliance on the children’s feelings about additional access as conveyed to the OCL two years earlier; the absence of any behavioural or academic issues that might indicate unhappiness with the current schedule; and the possible embarrassment of a further investigation involving their teachers and other collaterals.

The lower courts also expressed concern that the father’s request for private counsel was not “child-focused” and would burden the children with questions when they had already expressed their wishes.

On appeal from the lower courts the father cited the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, arguing that the Convention obliged the court to appoint counsel for them. Article 12 of the Convention reads:

1. State parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2. For this purpose, the child in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial or administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of natural law.

The appeal court confirmed that the appointment of counsel for children is a discretionary decision which should focus on the best interests of the child and deference should be afforded to a motion judge’s assessment of such an appointment. Ultimately, the appeal was dismissed.

The Court referred to Reynolds v. Reynolds 1996 ONSC 7273 where Fleury J. said:

“This remedy [appointing a lawyer for the children] should not be available only for the asking. In as much as it implicates the children very directly in the entire litigation, it is a very blunt instrument indeed. It can cause untold harm to impressionable children who may feel suddenly inappropriately empowered against their parents in a context where the children should be protected as much as possible from the contest being waged over their future care and custody. All actions involving custody and access over children should be governed by one paramount consideration: no one should be allowed to act in a way that might endanger their well-being. The test of “the best interests of the children” as insipid and fluid as it might be, still remains the benchmark against which any person wishing to interfere in their lives should be measured.”

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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How to Ensure Your Family Court Judge Will Rule Against You….

GeorgiaLeeLang025Family law is incredibly emotional, particularly when it comes to parenting and children’s issues. But there are basic “rookie” mistakes that well-meaning moms and dads make, despite their valiant efforts to present themselves as good parents focused on their children’s best interests.

One of those mistakes is surreptitiously recording your children or your separated spouse.

So many Canadian judges have criticized this practice that it is almost trite law that it should be avoided. For example, Ontario Justice Pazaratz says in Whidden v. Ellwood, 2016 ONSC 6938

“Parents shouldn’t surreptitiously audio record their children. It’s a breach of trust; an abuse of access; and a cheap manipulation of an innocent child. Sheidaei-Gandovani v. Makramati, 2014 ONCJ 82 (CanLII), 2014 ONCJ 82 (OCJ); Hameed v. Hameed, 2006 ONCJ 274 (CanLII), 2006 ONCJ 274 (OCJ); Jackson v. Mayerle, 2016 ONSC 72 (CanLII), 2016 ONSC 72 (SCJ)”.

A British Columbia judge wrote:

“I am of the opinion that it is not desirable to encourage the surreptitious recording of household conversations, particular so when it is done in the family home and the conversations are between family members. This is an odious practice.” (Seddon v. Seddon 1994 BCSC 1062)

The rationale for filming your child during a parenting exchange time is usually done to show one of the following behaviours:

a) The child’s unwillingness to go to the other parent;
b) The child’s eagerness to go to the other parent;
c) The opportunity to present evidence of the other parent’s nastiness, bad language, late arrival, abusive behaviour, etc.

Yes, you will find judges who will admit audio/video recordings into evidence, but the general consensus is that they are rarely useful or necessary for a judge to determine how to determine custody or divide parenting time between parents.

Why do judges dislike audio or video recordings? Because:

a) Parents use recordings to make the other parent look bad, but more often then not it backfires, causing the Court to doubt the judgment of the recording parent;

b) Recording your child or spouse raises doubts about how a fit parent could be so insensitive as to place an innocent child in the middle of an inflammatory situation;

c) The clear message to the child is “Look how bad your mother/father is, so much so that I have to record him/her”.

And yet, clients will continue to ignore the good advice they receive from their lawyers and smartphones will continue to be a part of a warring parent’s arsenal…sad but true.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Court Takes Evidence of Parental Alienation Seriously

_DSC4851A Court in Belgium has ordered a 13-year old girl to check into a psychiatric facility so that experts can figure out why the young girl refuses to look at or speak to her father, after her parent’s high-conflict divorce.

Father’s lawyer said that both parents lashed out at each other during their tense separation and divorce, and ultimately, their daughter lived primarily with her mother and maternal grandparents.

But nobody can point to an incident that would cause a child, who otherwise had a loving relationship with her father, to turn against him. Even the mother’s lawyer agreed that he was a normal father, with no evidence of personality issues or sexual abuse.

Respected psychotherapist Lut Celie opined:

“The father and mother parted on bad terms during the divorce battle with each parent trying to blacken the other. This went so far as to affect the child whose character was not fully developed.”

The Court was told that during a four-year period father and daughter had over 100 visits and each and every time, she refused to interact with him.

During the girl’s first communion at church, she became upset that her father was present and made such a public scene, he was forced to leave the church.

Rather than suggesting that mother and grandparents try to persuade their daughter to engage in a normal father/daughter relationship, a judicial direction that is often futile, the judge removed the girl from her mother’s care and control and into treatment.

Mysteriously, the teenager refuses to explain her behaviour. Kudos to the judge for his determination to get to the bottom of her conduct.

Mom, of course, is furious with the judge’s decision, saying:

“My little girl is being taken from the warmth of her home and away from her school where she is happy and has many friends. This is so heartless… It’s just because her father is insisting. She’s 13 years old now and old enough to know her own mind.”

Sure sounds like parental alienation syndrome…and if it is…it’s despicable, but hopefully not too late.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Four Reasons Why BC’s New Family Law Act is Good for Fathers

British Columbia’s new family laws will be in effect on March 18, 2013. For husbands and fathers who have felt victimized and exploited by the Family Relations Act 1979, there is every reason to be optimistic that the new law will assist them to achieve the fairness and equality they have been fighting for.

The first bit of good news is that effective March 13, 2012 the new law will apply to everyone, even if they commenced a family law proceeding under the current Family Relations Act that has not yet been concluded, with one exception. Property claims made under the old Act will be governed by that legislation, unless both parties agree that the new law should be applied.

The changes in law that will assist fathers include:

1. Pejorative terminology is removed:

The language of “custody” and “access” used in the current legislation left many parents feeling marginalized and overlooked as fully contributing parents who provided value to their children’s lives. These terms also connoted an “I win, you lose” philosophy. The language of the new Family Law Act is “parenting time” and “contact”, words that do not imply ownership of children by one parent to the exclusion of the other.

2. Endless court applications regarding children can be avoided:

For fathers who are constantly struggling to see their children regularly, or have a vacation with their child, or obtain their child’s passport for travel, or the dozens of other irritants that require fathers to go back to court, the new law has introduced and codified the role of a Parenting Coordinator. This person, who may be a counselor or a lawyer, will be empowered under the law to make binding decisions with regards to parenting issues, with the criteria being “the best interests of the child only”.

3. Informal parenting arrangements will be respected:

In scenarios where a father and mother have recently separated and have worked out a voluntary parenting plan, one parent cannot unilaterally change the plan. What often occurs is the parties will agree to a particular schedule, but when mom learns about dad’s new girlfriend, or is angry over some event involving dad, it is not uncommon for mother to unilaterally impede the regularly scheduled parenting time of the father. This new law forbids this kind of unilateral action.

4. Denial of parenting time will be treated seriously:

One of the most common complaints from fathers in high conflict marriage breakdown is the capricious, unreasonable denial of parenting time as punishment for the parties’ separation, even when the separation was requested by the mother.

The new law recognizes the importance of a father’s time with his children and will take serious steps to enforce parenting time. The key is that a father must complain to the court within 12 months of the access denial. In those circumstances the court may order compensatory parenting time to make up for the time denied. The court can also order a denying parent to go to counseling, pay a $5000.00 fine or reimburse the father for all of his expenses including travel expenses, lost wages and child care expenses incurred as a result of the refusal to comply with the informal parenting arrangement or the terms of any agreement or court order.

In my view the government has enacted new law that is meant to assist parents who do not want to be excised from their children’s lives. The important matter now is that the public be educated as to the upcoming changes so they can improve their relationships with their children.

A final note: there are many mothers who do not conduct themselves in ways described above, but when they do the emotional and financial damage to the family is devastating and destructive, both for the parents and the children.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang