Part II of this paper identified three key family challenges: (i) the economic vulnerability of Canadian families, (ii) sacrifices in earning potential undertaken in intact families, and (iii) conflict arising on relationship break-down. Andrew Schepard has proposed that family conflict be identified and treated as a public health epidemic, due to its disease-like impacts upon society. This means that both prevention and treatment are important. This Part will focus on the ways in which the government might prevent family challenges or reduce their severity before they occur.
III. A. Prevention of Relationship Break-Down
One way to reduce the impact of family challenges would be to reduce the number of intimate relationships which are voluntarily dissolved. This was, indeed, a central social goal for many decades in Canada. Books were written, and professionals trained, with the goal of preventing divorce. Section 9 of the Divorce Act also reflects the policy objective of “saving” marriages. It provides that family lawyers must “draw to the attention” of their clients to the statutory objective of “reconciliation of spouses,” and provide information about “marriage counselling or guidance facilities known to him or her that might be able to assist the spouses to achieve a reconciliation.” Some American scholars argue that preserving or “protecting” marriages should be an explicit goal of family law. For example, “covenant marriage,” a form of union which is designed to be more difficult to dissolve than normal marriage, is available to couples in some American states. The focus of this scholarship has generally been on saving marriages, as opposed to intimate cohabitations generally. In fact, many of those who wish to “save marriage” from divorce also perceive non-marital cohabitation as a “threat” to marriage which society should resist.
While the law can make the legal state of marriage more difficult to exit, it is difficult to see how it can preserve family affection or harmony. Nor can people be forced to cohabit. Preserving the legal form of a marriage which lacks affection, harmony, or cohabitation has no apparent purpose. For these reasons, it seems more promising to assume that large numbers of intimate relationships will continue to dissolve before death does them part, and to examine ways to prevent or mitigate the challenges which arise when they do so.
III. B. Prevention of Challenges Arising Upon Break-down
This section will consider what society can do for members of intact families so as to reduce the severity of the challenges they will face when and if those relationships dissolve. Richard Susskind seems to be correct in suggesting that people “prefer to have a fence at the top of a cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom.” It is worthwhile to consider how family challenges might be prevented.
A key question which has emerged from the LCO’s public consultations pertains to the idea of “early intervention” in family disputes. How early is early enough? The answer might be that early intervention must begin during cohabitations, in anticipation of the fact that many cohabitations will eventually be ended voluntarily. One interesting finding from the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project telephone survey suggests some scope for prevention of challenges. 14% of the respondents said that in the future they would be likely to experience family relationship problems. If it is true that many Ontarians anticipate future family challenges, they may be receptive to initiatives to prevent or mitigate those challenges. The government should ensure that its public information initiatives about family law are made available and accessible to Ontarians who are still cohabiting in intact relationships, not only to those who have decided to cease cohabiting.
III. B. 1. Education
The severity of the conflict which arises upon relationship break-down is to some extent dependent on the manner in which the parties communicate and address that conflict. Education as prophylaxis for dysfunctional family conflict could conceivably start before the conflict arises, if it were delivered in high school or as a pre-requisite to marriage. The Ontario secondary school curriculum already includes a course entitled “Healthy Active Living Education.” In this course, students are “given opportunities to refine their decision- making, conflict-resolution, and interpersonal skills, with a view to enhancing their mental health and their relationships with others.” The government should consider teaching strategies for communication and conflict-resolution in intimate relationships in the context of the “Healthy Active Living Education” in Grade 12, or in another course. Doing so might enhance Ontarians’ ability to deal with post-relationship conflict in a manner which mitigates rather than exacerbates it. It could conceivably even increase the chance that intimate relationships remain harmonious and healthy.
III. B. 2. Marriage and Cohabitation Contracts
Individuals entering a marriage or cohabitation are permitted to establish by contract what their financial obligations to each other will be when and if their relationship dissolves. Doing so can substantially reduce the potential for subsequent conflict and disagreement, and can create clear expectations for the parties. Justice Québec publicizes information about cohabitation contracts on a website, which includes an explicit recommendation that
People who chose to live in a de facto union should specify how they intend to live as a couple and how they intend to manage their family relationship to avoid disputes and disagreements… because a written document provides more lasting proof than a verbal agreement, it is in your interest to sign a written cohabitation contract with your de facto spouse.
By contrast, the family law section of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General does not appear to mention cohabitation or marriage contracts. The Government should consider expanding the information which it provides about pre-marital and cohabitation contracts. Potentially, the Ministry’s web site could include an explicit recommendation to create such a contract, or a web-based tool to help parties draft contracts.
However, it is very difficult for individuals to negotiate about entitlements and obligations which they never expect to become real, insofar as people generally do not enter intimate relationships while contemplating their dissolution. If the entitlements and obligations do become real, this often does not occur for many years after the contract was initially negotiated. For these among other reasons, very few Ontarians enter marriage or cohabitation contracts. It is not clear that amendments to the Ministry web site would substantially change this reality.
III. B. 3. Discouraging Earning-Potential Sacrifices: Public Investments in Child Care
As established above, sacrifices in earning potential undertaken for family reasons can lead to economic challenges after relationship break-down. Some such sacrifices are an inevitable and healthy response on the part of Ontarians to their family responsibilities. However, Ontario might want to discourage the most dramatic form of earning potential sacrifice – extended or permanent departures from the labour force. To put the point in positive terms, the state may wish to encourage continuing employment and/or educational activities by parents.