British Columbia

New changes to Divorce Act 'a huge relief' for B.C. mother of girls murdered by father

New changes to Canada's Divorce Act that came into effect Monday more fully recognize the impact of family violence in separation disputes.

The changes — the first in more than 20 years — came into effect Monday

Chloe and Aubrey Berry, photographed with their mother Sarah Cotton. The young girls were killed by their father in 2017. (Ryan MacDonald Photography)

The mother of two girls who were murdered by their father on Christmas Day in 2017 in Oak Bay, B.C., says she is relieved to hear about new changes to Canada's Divorce Act recognizing the impact of family violence.

"It was a huge relief for me," Sarah Cotton-Elliott said to CBC's Gregor Craigie during one of her first interviews since her daughters' deaths. 

"It's definitely too late in my case, but I certainly hope that going forward, this is a positive change for many people. And I think it can can really help with the outcome for families."

The changes are the first in more than 20 years to Canada's Divorce Act, and came into effect Monday. The changes were initially set to go into effect in July of 2020 but were delayed by the pandemic.

A broader definition of family violence

One key change is that the act defines family violence beyond the physical, including instances of sexual abuse, harassment or stalking, psychological abuse, and financial abuse.

Peter Jaffe, a psychologist and professor at Western University who studies domestic violence, says family violence has never been defined this explicitly.

"I think, often in a judge's mind, and the average person on the street, when they hear the word violence, they're thinking about a physical assault," Jaffe said. 

"And the law now very clearly talks about psychological and emotional and financial abuse and threats, so it's much more comprehensive and it gives the judges a lot more to work with in terms of recognizing the harm to both adult victims and also to their children."

Cotton-Elliott, who went through the family court process in 2016 with her ex-partner Andrew Berry, says she hopes that other families can be helped by these efforts.

"They have outlined these types of abuses in black and white. And for that to be outlined is absolutely huge because that was not recognized in my family law experience."

Berry was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 22 years for the second-degree murder of their daughters Chloe, 6, and Aubrey, 4.

Education component necessary

However, Trudi Brown, a lawyer practising family law in Victoria, says the changes in the federal act match what has already been part of British Columbia's provincial Family Law Act for the past eight years. 

"It's been part of the Family Law Act, a lot of us believe it probably hasn't factored in enough," Brown said. "The hope [is] by repeating and rephrasing in federal statute, lawyers and judges will actually act upon it."

Jaffe says education is essential in making sure that changes in the act will translate to changes in the courts. 

"Legislation is a great start, but you have to match it with judicial and legal education. You have to match it with getting resources to help judges in their decision making," he said.

"I always worry when there is such a gap between having the training and resources to match the new legislation."

Cotton-Elliott says there will always be an immense void in her life, but she will continue to push the system for better outcomes for children. 

"I'm doing this for my daughters."

With files from CHEK, All Points West, On The Island, and Briar Stewart