Montreal lawyer renews fight for equal rights for unmarried partners

Nearly eight years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against giving Quebec unmarried partners the right to alimony, a Montreal lawyer is back in court fighting for them to get the same rights as those who are married or in a civil union. 

Anne-France Goldwater argues lack of protection for unwed couples in Quebec is unconstitutional

Montreal lawyer Anne-France Goldwater is once again representing an unmarried spouse, more than a decade after her involvement with the Eric vs. Lola case. (CBC News)

Nearly eight years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against giving Quebec unmarried couples the right to alimony, a Montreal lawyer is back in court once again fighting for them to have the same rights as those who are married or in a civil union. 

Montreal law firm Goldwater-Dubé is contesting in Quebec Superior Court the constitutionality of several articles in Quebec's Civil Code and Article 47 of the province's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms — in which only the rights of married and civil union spouses are guaranteed. 

Lawyer Anne-France Goldwater argues the lack of protection for unmarried partners in Quebec law is unconstitutional and disproportionately affects women and children. 

"Unmarried women in Quebec are severely disadvantaged over their married counterparts. They do not benefit from equal treatment even though equality is guaranteed them by the Quebec charter," said Goldwater. 

Currently, if an unwed couple splits up, neither partner can head to court to argue for spousal support and they don't have any rights in dividing their shared or family assets. They can, however, get child support.

Quebec is the only province that does not recognize "de facto" marriages, despite one in three couples in the province fitting into that category. 

Back in 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the province's Civil Code was constitutional in its treatment of unwed couples who separate, because the province's laws promote autonomy.

Goldwater represented one of the clients in the case that sparked that debate, known as Lola vs. Eric. A court order prevents the publication of the parties' real names.

Goldwater began representing "Lola" at the end of 2004 but the case took nearly a decade to wend its way through the court system. It involved a Quebec couple who never married, but lived together and had three children. 

"Lola" had been fighting to get spousal support but the Quebec Superior Court rejected her claims, with the judge saying that under existing law, partners in a de facto relationship had no rights, duties and responsibilities to each other — no matter how many years they had lived together.

The case went to the Quebec Court of Appeal which invalidated that section of the Civil Code, saying the law discriminated against unmarried couples. The court gave the province one year to change it. 

The Quebec government instead took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in the Quebec government's favour and allowed the law to stay the same.

Now, Goldwater has taken on a similar case, this time dubbed Nathalie vs. Pierre. In this case, the couple lived together for nearly 30 years and had four children together but never married. "Nathalie" is asking that she be granted the same rights as if she had been married to "Pierre." 

"I'm looking to protect everybody, if you're a couple, you're a family, the law should protect both partners and all the children with no regard for sex, orientation, or whether somebody wore a white dress the day of the wedding," said Goldwater.

"This does not mean a blank cheque for anybody. It just means there's a set of rules that make it easy for people on the breakdown of their union to come up with equitable solutions that will be sure to protect both parties." 

Goldwater believes the ruling will be different this time though, because the province has become increasingly aware of inequities in its laws.

 Elisabeth Gosselin, spokesperson for Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, says the ministry is aware of the constitutional challenge, but will not offer any comment due to the ongoing legal process.

"Regarding the reform of family law, we are continuing our work. This is a priority file. The last major reform of family law dates back to 1980," she said.

"However, the needs and realities of Quebec families have changed a lot over the past 40 years and the legal framework must be modernized and adapted."