High court says Quebec does not have to recognize common-law couples

OTTAWA – By a slim majority, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Quebec does not have to give common-law spouses the same rights as married couples.

The complex, detailed ruling issued Friday means the financial aspects of the province’s family law regime are constitutional and do not have to be changed.

Despite the fact that one-third of all Quebec couples are unmarried, the province’s Civil Code does not provide equal rights for those in common-law unions.

The case involves a woman and her former lover, a prominent Quebec businessman who contends he should not have to pay alimony because they were never legally married.

It’s widely known as the Eric and Lola case, because the pair can’t be identified under a provincial family law that protects the identity of their three children

Common-law couples have varying rights depending on where they live in Canada, with some provinces giving them alimony and property rights.

It was not immediately clear what the impact of the ruling would be in other provinces. The Supreme Court confined its detailed deliberations to the case at issue.

The Quebec government offered a mixed reaction.

Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud said he’s pleased the Supreme Court respected the laws of Quebec’s legislature.

But he said it might be time to consider updating Quebec legislation, which has not been touched in a generation, amid a skyrocketing number of common-law relationships in the province.

“We might be at the point where we need a real reflection on the whole of our family laws,” St-Arnaud said.

“I’m not closing the door on that.”

Justice Louis LeBel, writing for the five-judge majority, said there was no charter violation at play because the current provincial law promotes autonomy.

“The Quebec National Assembly has not favoured one form of union over another,” he wrote.

“The legislature has merely defined the legal content of the different forms of conjugal relationships. It has made consent the key to changing the spouses’ mutual patrimonial relationship.

“In this way, it has preserved the freedom of those who wish to organize their patrimonial relationships outside the mandatory statutory framework.”

A lone dissenter, Justice Rosalie Abella, disagreed and said the Quebec legal scheme is unconstitutional.

“The National Assembly enacted economic safeguards for spouses in formal unions based on the need to protect them from the economic consequences of their assumed roles,” she wrote.

“Since many spouses in de facto couples exhibit the same functional characteristics as those in formal unions, with the same potential for one partner to be left economically vulnerable or disadvantaged when the relationship ends, their exclusion from similar protections perpetuates historic disadvantage against them based on their marital status.”

Three justices, led by the now retired Justice Marie Deschamps, said that while there was a constitutional violation, it could be allowed under a section of the charter which allows for the limitation of rights in certain circumstances.

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