How Not to Handle a Divorce
It is sometimes worth reaching into the long history of family law decisions in Ontario for a lesson on “what not to do” during divorce proceedings, particularly where the Judge is well known for his candour in decision writing.
Justice Quinn is a Superior Court Justice in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. His decisions are often highly quotable, entertaining, and provide good lessons for those involved in family law disputes.
Case in point: Justice Quinn’s decision in Geremia v. Harb. This case details a fragment of a custody dispute between two people whose legal battle spanned more than 50 trial days, despite the fact that they had been married for less than three years. Both parties had gone through at least 4 lawyers each, and the trial record was more than 10 volumes. The case is a great “blueprint for how NOT to handle a separation”.
Justice Quinn provides some helpful context and background:
“The parties have a short marital history: they were married in 1999, had a child in 2000, separated in 2001 and were divorced in 2002. Since then, the litigation has been unrelenting. The parties have logged more hours in the court house than many part-time court employees. The continuing record consists of 10 volumes. Theirs is a blueprint for how not to handle a separation [emphasis added].”
The mother in his case had primary custody of the former couple’s only child, and the father had access. The mother claimed that the father was emotionally abusive to the child during access visits and alleged that the child was resistant to seeing him.
The biggest issue, however, was the mother’s deliberate attempts to keep the father in the dark about important aspects of the child’s life, including her health care and education. The parties were subject to a number of court orders from a previous judge. One of those orders mandated that each of the parties keep each other “fully informed of all matters regarding the child. Both parties shall have the right to receive all information with respect to the child’s education, medical care, dental care, and other pertinent information…”
The father claimed that, among other things, he had not been informed that the child had:
- Begun to see a general practitioner instead of a pediatrician.
- Been to see a naturopath on a number of occasions.
- Also been to see a psychologist and a psychiatrist numerous times.
The father also claimed that the mother had not told him that she had removed the child from kindergarten at a school directly across from the mother’s home, and enrolled her instead in a program in another city.
The father brought a contempt motion, claiming the mother had violated the court order.
Contempt: Deliberately Withholding Information About Your Child Can Be an Offence
The mother was found to be in contempt of the previous Judge’s order. Justice Quinn found that the mother had “intentionally” and “with full knowledge” breached the court order to keep the father informed of health and education decisions made about their child on at least 17 occasions.
The offence of contempt can involve the intentional refusal to do an act required by an order, since, as Quinn pointed out, “…the wilful disobedience of a court order is a serious matter, striking as it does, at the heart of our system of justice”. Consequences for contempt include a fine and/or imprisonment. In this case, sentencing of the mother was left to a later decision, in which she was found not guilty of contempt due to a technicality.
What Not to Do During Divorce/Separation
In Justice Quinn’s opinion, the mother’s refusal to keep the father apprised of the child’s numerous doctor’s visits created a number of problems.
Disturbingly, the father had not been informed that his child had seen a child psychologist on a number of occasions. Justice Quinn found that this:
“…placed [the father] at a great disadvantage in his dealings with the child. Not only was he cast as the source of the problem with access visits, he was prevented from being part of the solution. Had the mother been forthright with the father and involved him in the process, it is likely that [the child psychologist] could have put an early end to the access problems. But, upon learning that [the child psychologist] required the participation of the father in order to be of help, the mother parted company with that doctor.”
Justice Quinn also had strong words regarding the failure of the mother to inform the father that the child had seen a psychiatrist:
“It is not an everyday occurrence that a four-year-old child is taken to a psychiatrist. The father is entitled to know about these medical attendances: they were significant events in the life of the child. The failure of the mother to inform (and, indeed, involve) the father is shameful.”
Justice Quinn additionally commented that:
“It is not for the father to attend upon [the child’s general practitioner] and ask ‘Has my daughter been seen by you recently regarding any serious medical conditions?’ Armed with the information that the mother should have conveyed to him on a timely basis, it would have been open for the father to attend upon the doctor for clarification or additional information.”
Justice Quinn also commented on the mother’s decisions with respect to the child’s education:
“The mother did not inform the father that she had ‘unenrolled’ the child at St. Christopher School. It is difficult to imagine the level of enmity that would lead the mother to withdraw the child from this school that she admitted was a good school and one that was located across the street from her home. But she did so – and for the vindictive reason that the father had, without her approval, attended at the school on the meet-the-teacher day…(something he was permitted to do under…the order).”
In family law, there are times where it is important to cooperate and avoid more conflict, and times where it may become necessary to aggressively pursue your rights. However, as outlined by Justice Quinn, extreme vindictive actions taken by one parent towards the other parent during a separation or divorce are not worth it. Such behaviour prolongs the litigation process, driving up expenses for both parties, and creating additional emotional stress. It can also have serious legal consequences. In the saga of these particular parents, it almost led to the mother being charged with contempt.
Additional Justice Quinn Decisions
For some of Justice Quinn’s other imminently quotable and instructive decisions, check out:
If you have questions about divorce or separation, please contact Jason P. Howie, online or at 519.973.1500.