Quebec's highest court is reviewing a high-profile, $50-million alimony case involving a former common-law couple.
The Quebec Court of Appeal has taken the case of "Lola" and "Eric" under advisement and will consider a basic principle of civil rights at the heart of the dispute — whether people should be free to live together without automatically taking on the responsibilities of marriage.
Lola is an unmarried woman who wants her former partner — a wealthy Quebec businessman — to pay her monthly alimony in addition to child support he already provides for their three children.
Eric is arguing he doesn't owe her anything beyond child support because Quebec law does not assume that people who live in common-law actually prefer the responsibilities and benefits or marriage.
The woman, in her 30s can't be named to protect the identity of her children. She met Eric on a Brazilian beach when she was 17, and moved to Montreal with him, where they lived together for seven years and had three children but never married.
When they split, Eric agreed to pay generous child support — but he rejected Lola's $50-million lump sum and annual $700,000 alimony settlement claim. He has told the court he doesn't believe in marriage.
Lola challenged Eric's refusal to pay on the grounds it was discriminatory. She took her case to court as a constitutional challenge to Quebec's marriage laws, arguing the legislation is archaic because it doesn't protect common-law relationships.
Her lawyers argued couples don't know when they move in together without marrying that they won't be able to make claims against their partners in the event of a breakup.
Quebec marriage laws questioned
In July 2009, Quebec Superior Court rejected Lola's challenge, ruling that Quebec law recognizes the freedom to choose not to marry.
Lola's lawyer Anne-France Goldwater said this latest appeal gives new life to the case, and hopes Quebec's legislature will review the province's laws to legally recognize common-law unions.
"In today's world, it's discriminatory to make a distinction between common-law and married couples and their children, in the same way as it was declared to be unconstitutional to make a distinction between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples," Goldwater told reporters after the Wednesday appeal hearing at the Montreal courthouse.
Lola's case has symbolic importance for all women in Quebec, many of whom may have experienced similar situations but didn't have the financial means to take legal action, Goldwater explained.
She added that Quebec's national assembly could take on the issue if it wanted, regardless of Lola's case.
"I always have the hope that the legislator will act before I ever get to the Supreme Court," Goldwater said.
"But whatever the case, as long as people are sensitized to the importance of the social problem, as long as there's pressure on the government to recognize there's a social problem, that's what's important."
An estimated 60 per cent of Quebec children are now born outside of marriage unions.
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