Custody disputes, family separation to be handled outside courts under new Manitoba law

Legislation introduced Tuesday will make it mandatory for most common-law partners in Winnipeg to deal with disagreements using a new dispute resolution service rather than the courts as part of a three-year pilot project.

Family Law Modernization Act 1st of its kind in Canada, Progressive Conservatives say

The Family Law Modernization Act includes a three-year pilot project that will create a Family Dispute Resolution Service. (Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock)

Legislation introduced Tuesday will make it mandatory for most common-law partners in Winnipeg to deal with disagreements using a new dispute resolution service, rather than the courts, as part of a three-year pilot project.

"The current system is convoluted, it's complex … and it's expensive," in addition to being adversarial, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said Tuesday. "We think we've come up with a solution." 

Bill 9, the Family Law Modernization Act, is the first of its kind in Canada to mandate an out-of-court dispute resolution service for common-law partners, Justice Department officials said.

It's also the first to make recommendation orders resulting from the dispute resolution service as binding as court orders, they said.

Married couples will still have to file for divorce in federal court but have the option of resolving any conflicts under the Winnipeg-based pilot project.

Lawyer Allan Fineblit led a family law reform committee for the province in 2018, which recommended a pilot project in its final report to develop a faster and less adversarial dispute resolution.

"In family law you're not resolving a one-off dispute. It's a long, ongoing relationship and you have to be able to constantly solve problems," said Fineblit.

Pilot project details to come

The Family Law Modernization Act contains six parts that make changes to several laws in the province, including the Child Support Service Act and the Arbitration Act. Some of the changes could come into effect as early as fall 2019 once legislation is proclaimed, the justice minister said. 

"There's a number of pieces to this puzzle," said Cullen. One of the first changes will be an out-of-court process for changing or updating child support arrangements.

The bill will also create a three-year pilot project in Winnipeg to test a new dispute resolution model. That will include the creation of a Family Dispute Resolution Service expected to launch in early 2020, Cullen said. 

'We laid out the framework in legislation. A lot of the mechanics have to be developed as we go forward,' Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said Tuesday. (CBC)

He also said details about how exactly the new program will work and its cost are still being worked out. The government is working with consultants North Forge Technology Exchange to design the program.

"We laid out the framework in legislation. A lot of the mechanics have to be developed as we go forward," said Cullen.

Fineblit said since the new system will be a first in Canada, the family law reform committee felt it was important for the project to be nimble and that it undergo regular evaluation.  

Using the Family Dispute Resolution Service will be mandatory for most common-law partners when resolving issues such as child custody disputes, division of property and sorting out child and spousal support.

Couples with court orders relating to domestic violence, expedited child custody cases or who have already begun divorce proceedings under the federal Divorce Act are exempt.

There will be two phases to the dispute resolution service. The first is a resolution phase, where a resolution officer (who could be a lawyer, social worker, financial planner or other professional) tries to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

If an agreement cannot be reached, the dispute goes to the second phase, where an adjudicator makes a recommended order. 

That order will carry the same weight as a court order if no objection is made within 35 days.

The government expects thousands of matters that currently must be processed at court to be resolved out of court under the new law. Officials estimate 3,000 to 5,000 couples divorce or separate every year in Manitoba. 

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa and Winnipeg. Previously, she worked as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at


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