The law can be slow to catch up to changes in family structures. This month, the court took a long-awaited and important step forward in recognizing the rights of children of unmarried parents.
In Coates v Watson, the court confirmed that adult disabled children of unmarried parents are entitled to child support just as adult disabled children of formerly married parents are.
This issue arose because the law that applies to married couples, the Divorce Act, is different than the law applying to unmarried couples, the Family Law Act. Under the Divorce Act, the definition of a child entitled to support includes an adult child who requires parental support because of a disability. Under the Family Law Act, the definition did not include an adult child with a disability. The practical outcome of this difference was that an adult child with a disability was entitled to child support if his or her parents had been married but not if they were unmarried. The court in Coates v Watson stated that the state of the law as it was:
“…undermines child support’s laudatory purposes and denies some children the financial support of both parents and contributes to the poverty of custodial parents, mostly women and vulnerable children who as a result of illness and disability are unable to leave the care of a parent.”
The court held that this was a violation of the Charter. It has been reported that the Ontario government has already begun working on amendments to the legislation in order to end the differential treatment.
This case is confirmation that courts and legislators are coming to understand that family law must evolve to reflect the modern realities of families. While there certainly is still progress to be made, particularly regarding the rights and obligations of common law spouses, this is an encouraging step forward.