'COVID divorce' is very real, say lawyers on the front lines of marriage breakdowns

In another sign of how the global pandemic is taking a toll on families, some lawyers in St. John's say their workload has intensified in recent weeks as clients inquire about separations and divorce.

Crisis is taking a toll on families and relationships, say veteran lawyers

Melanie Del Rizzo, a St. John's-based family law lawyer with 25 years' experience, says June was her busiest month, driven mostly by marriage breakdowns. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

In another sign of how the global pandemic is taking a toll on families, some lawyers in St. John's say their workload has intensified in recent weeks as clients inquire about separations and divorce.

Melanie Del Rizzo, a specialist in family law said one recent Monday morning, she had eight new clients before 11 a.m., a figure that increased to 20 midway through the week.

"That's unheard of. It's absolutely crazy," said Del Rizzo, who said June was her busiest month in 25 years of practising family law.

Sharon McKim-Ryan tells a similar story.

"We're used to advice calls on a regular basis, but the sheer volume? It's unprecedented," said McKim-Ryan, a family law lawyer with 15 years' experience as a solicitor.

Both say the workload is so intense they're having trouble keeping up.

"I would say I probably would need someone else to come help me fairly soon. Absolutely," said Del Rizzo.

Sharon McKim-Ryan is a solicitor in St. John's who specializes in family law. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Early on during the pandemic, both lawyers said they were swamped with issues related to child custody, with parents bickering over child-sharing arrangements because of fears it would increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.

With the courts closed to all but urgent matters during the height of the pandemic in Newfoundland and Labrador, they were busy hashing out alternative dispute resolutions.

"Some decided that they were going to have the children or the child remain in one household as a measure of protection," said McKim-Ryan.

Parents bickered over child-sharing

In other cases, she added, parents agreed to lengthen the stays at each household in order to lower the number of transitions for the child.

McKim-Ryan said some of her clients who worked in high-risk sectors like health care also placed children with grandparents.

"Some parents came up with creative ways to minimize the risk of exposure during this pandemic," she said.

Issues relating to child and spousal support payments were also amplified by the fact that thousands of people lost their jobs. Some had to make tough choices, said McKim-Ryan.

"Some parents decided they would agree to a reduced amount of child support for the duration of time that the payer parent was unemployed. Other parents weren't able to come up with an agreement, and some parents had to liquidate investments in order to meet their child support obligations," she said.

"I received calls from small business owners who were forced to close their doors during the pandemic, and they also had concerns about their ability to pay."

The crisis has placed a great deal of stress on marriages, and lawyers like Del Rizzo said the early indicators point to something she's calling "COVID divorce."

"To me it appears to be something that is real," said Del Rizzo.

"I actually have never seen this level before," added McKim-Ryan.

Del Rizzo said it reminds her of the week after Christmas, when marriage breakdowns are most common, but this trend appears to be showing no signs of slowing down.

"It could be be the strain and stresses of quarantine shone a bright light on problems that people were having in their relationships," said Del Rizzo.

People often take stock of their lives during a crisis, and McKim-Ryan said it appears those in relationships that may have been declining before the pandemic may be feeling that added motivation to make a change in their lives.

"There certainly was an increase, and there still is an increase in the volume. Absolutely," she said.

The family division of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador is located in St. John's on Portugal Cove Road. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

For many households, the last few months have delivered a cascade of challenges, ranging from employment and economic uncertainty and the closure of schools, to wider concerns about the coronavirus disease.

Blend that with a quarantine that required families to shelter in their homes for weeks on end, and it's not surprising that some notable patterns have emerged, said Del Rizzo, including an increase in incidents of gender-based violence.

"I can see every day I'm getting more and more calls from people looking for help," she said.

Adding to the workload for lawyers like Del Rizzo and McKim-Ryan is the fact that a handful of very senior family law lawyers in the St. John's region have retired in recent months, and that family law is not attractive for many new lawyers entering the profession.

"It's not a very popular area of law. It's very difficult emotionally," said Del Rizzo. 

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Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in St. John’s. He previously worked for the Telegram, the Compass and the Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at