'Parallel Parents' A New Concept In Divorce Law
National Post (Canada) - Monday, 21st July 2003
By Janice Tibbetts
Judges Change Focus Duties to children split by couples, even if they loathe each other. Ottawa - Judges in child custody disputes are beginning to embrace a new concept dubbed "parallel parenting" for mothers and fathers who cannot get along after divorce. Unlike joint custody and co-operative parenting arrangements, judges are imposing the new regime on feuding parents by handing out orders that clearly split up their responsibilities to minimize the need to communicate. In the current issue of Canadian Lawyer magazine, Toronto family lawyer Nathalie Boutet describes parallel parenting as a "funky new trend." Judges in Ontario, in particular, appear to be adopting parallel parenting to get a jump on proposed changes to the Divorce Act, which replace the contentious terms "custody" and "access" and focus on parental responsibility instead of winners and losers. "The new language lends itself to these more creative, boilerplate type of agreements," Julia Cornish, a family law expert in Dartmouth, N.S. Ms. Cornish praised the parallel parenting concept for recognizing that it might be in the best interest of children to have equal involvement with both their mother and father, even if the parents are hostile toward each other. "In a high conflict situation you find ways to reduce the parents' opportunities to have conflict. The idea is, you can't expect some parents to have meaningful conversation because they've got the track record that that is not going to happen. Nevertheless they've both been involved parents and it's not appropriate to put one parent as the one who's doing the huge majority of the parenting and the other parent very much sidelined." Judges, for example, are setting up parenting orders that would have one parent responsible for such things as education and religion, while the other parent would take over recreation and heath care, Ms. Cornish said. The Ontario Court of Appeal, which is about to consider the worthiness of parallel parenting in the case of Lefebvre vs. Lefebvre, describes the new trend as: "The parents are given equal status, but exercise the rights and responsibilities associated with custody independently from each other." The concept, which until now has not been tested in appeal courts, has sparked controversy in family law circles. Some lawyers say that it contradicts an established legal premise that warring parents should not be awarded joint custody. In Lefebvre vs. Lefebvre, an Ontario judge imposed parallel parenting on the parents of three-year-old Gabrielle, despite a recommendation from a social worker that they were too hostile toward each other to effectively co-parent. At the time of seperation, Gabrielle's father, Stephane Lefebvre, took over her care, has recommended by the social worker. But the social worker also noted that Gabrielle "appeared to be equally comfortable with either parent" and "while they have different parenting styles, the child would continue to thrive and be well cared for by either parent." Ontario Superior Court Justice Heidi Levenson Polowin, in ordering parallel parenting, divided up responsibilities, giving the mother the final say on medical and dental decisions affecting Gabrielle. Stephane Lefebvre contends the order flies in the face of legal precedent, which emphasizes that shared custody should only be awarded when parents have shown an ability to co-operate.