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Canada: Court Ruling Denies Equal Rights to Common Law Couples

(Feb. 1, 2013) On January 25, 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court determined by a five-to-four decision that common law couples do not have the same legal rights as married couples. (Sung Un Kim, Canada Top Court: Quebec Common Law Couples Do Not Have Rights of Married Couples, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Jan. 25, 2013); Quebec (Attorney General) v. A, 2013 SCC 5, JUDGMENTS OF THE SUPREME COURT OF CANADA (Jan. 25, 2013).)

The case being considered was one of a woman who had been part of a common law marriage and who filed a suit seeking spousal support and a division of property. She argued that provisions of the Civil Code of Québec that distinguish between married couples, those in civil unions, and de facto couples are inconsistent with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Kim, supra; Constitution Act 1982, JUSTICE LAWS WEBSITE [Canadian government website]; Civil Code of Québec, JUSTICE QUEBEC (last updated Oct. 3, 2012).)

The Court disagreed with the plaintiff’s argument and determined that the Civil Code provisions were not unconstitutional, because they did not discriminate against a particular group of couples. (Kim, supra.) The Court’s ruling was limited to this one case, which had been appealed from lower courts within Québec. Since the Canadian provinces each have their own rules about the rights and obligations of unmarried couples, it is not yet clear whether this decision will have any impact outside of Québec. (Id.) It does have the potential to affect many relationships, because 1.4 million people in the province, 31.5% of couples, are in de facto relationships, compared with an average of 12.1% in the other provinces of Canada. (Unmarried Quebec Couples Have No Rights to Alimony, Court Rules, CBC NEWS (Jan. 25, 2013).)