What is the impact of Covid-19 on family justice in Ontario? There is more clarity to that question as the pandemic continues and lawyers, judges, and clients survey the toll on various aspects of family law in the province. Anecdotally, Ontario family lawyers have been reporting spikes in the number of enquiries they’ve received about separation and divorce over the past year. Underlying stressors such as disrupted routines and additional parenting burdens have surfaced over the course of the pandemic adding new pressures to already fragile relationships. In the midst of this, parents must find ways to co-parent effectively to ensure the wellbeing of their children.

Judicial Guidance on Parenting Disputes During the Pandemic

Ontario courts have been clear on the need to make accommodations in the face of the pandemic. Covid-19 restrictions have been a driver of disputes between parents, as parents have had to negotiate parenting arrangements and alter their existing caregiving schedules. Navigating adjustments between children’s in-person school and virtual learning has added further anxiety, with parents adjusting their working schedules to meet care needs. In some instances, separated or divorced co-parents have refused to facilitate access citing Covid-19 concerns, with co-parents anxious about infection rates, and compliance with health mandates.

Parenting and Finances are the Key Family Law Issues Arising Out of the Pandemic

An analysis of Ontario family law decisions during the first lockdown period between March 17, 2020, and July 6, 2020, when courts triaged cases prioritizing urgent matters, bears out the pandemic’s impact on family courts. Roughly seventy percent of cases involved just a parenting dispute, twenty percent involved just financial matters, and fifty-six percent involved access challenges.

In response to the extraordinary circumstances facing families, courts have attempted to balance public health requirements with the standard focus on the best interests of children, particularly when approaching applications to vary parenting orders.

In one case, the court acknowledged that custodial or access parents may have to give up or change their time with the child, for example, to minimize the spread of the virus if there was a prospect of exposure. At the same time, the judiciary has reiterated the significance of parent-child relationships and personal contact with both parents to a child’s best interests. Courts have not wavered from requiring parents to communicate and develop proposals enabling co-parenting within the uncertain climate caused by the pandemic.

Using the Pandemic to Impose New Permanent Parenting Arrangements

As parents exhibit flexibility and compromise in adjusting established routines as needed to deal with the pandemic, some concern has arisen that these altered parenting and access schedules may be a future source of conflict. Parenting time is an important driver of disputes in family courts, with a new risk emerging that some parties will try to retain the changes beyond the pandemic.

It is possible a parent may argue that changes to custody and access that were intended to be temporary should become permanent because they have been working well for the past year. Courts are attuned to the prospect of parents advancing such arguments and making unilateral attempts to impose new arrangements on the other parent. In one 2020 decision, the Court noted that it was guided by the best interests of the children in deciding the pandemic necessitated the varying of the normal parenting routines. However, the Court made sure to point out that these solutions were intended as short-term measures and not a means of creating a new status-quo.

Courts Emphasize Flexibility and Cooperation in Parenting Disputes

Courts have accounted for the risk that Covid-19 poses to family members while also looking to maintain parental contact with their children. In Ribeiro v. Wright, a mother worried the father would not adhere to government public health guidelines and sought to restrict the father’s parenting time. The Court stated that children’s lives and family relationships cannot be placed on hold indefinitely without risking serious emotional harm and upset, and that “in troubling and disorienting times, children need the love, guidance and emotional support of both parents, now more than ever.”

While Temporary Changes May be Necessary, Minimal Disruption is Still Key

Cooperation and compromise are ordinarily traits that help facilitate effective parenting regimes, and they are even more significant now in identifying how to best serve a child’s day to day needs. Temporary and limited adjustments to routines may be expected, though they should be as minimally disruptive to the pre-pandemic practises as possible.

Exercising sound judgement and creating realistic solutions to the novel challenges families are being exposed to will be welcomed by courts. Indeed, judges have called for parents to work together to secure the physical and emotional well-being of children. Guidance from child psychologist and child custody expert Dr. Michael Elterman regarding parenting during Covid-19 emphasizes the value of communication between parents. Parents need to work together to plan for disruption and the possibility of finding new means of fulfilling parenting time remotely for the time being.

Both courts and parents recognize that families are facing a series of unique challenges. Relationships may be strained as co-parenting routines have to adapt, but courts have clearly conveyed a desire for parents to creatively locate solutions that will maintain their child’s wellbeing. Judges have exhorted parties to try to resolve matters outside of court in the face of limited resources while identifying that families need more cooperation and less litigation.           

The lawyers at Boulby Weinberg LLP in Toronto focus exclusively on family law matters for clients in Ontario and internationally and regularly represent clients in court and various alternative dispute resolution processes including mediation and arbitration. If you have parenting concerns our lawyers can help you with solutions tailored to your unique circumstances. To arrange a consultation please complete our online questionnaire or contact the firm at 647-494-0113 ext. 102.