Divorce Act (Canada)

Statutes of Canada Parliament of Canada Library of Parliament
Divorce Act
Parliament of Canada
CitationR.S.C. 1985, c. 3 (2nd Supp.)
Enacted byParliament of Canada
Assented to13 February 1986
Commenced1 June 1986
Related legislation
First enacted: S.C. 1968-69, c. 24
Repealed and re-enacted: S.C. 1986, c. 4
Divorce; Canada

The Divorce Act[1] (French: Loi sur le divorce) is the federal Act that governs divorce in Canada. The Constitution of Canada gives the federal Parliament exclusive jurisdiction to regulate the law of marriage and divorce.

History of divorce law in Canada

There was no uniform federal divorce law in Canada until 1968. Instead, there was a patch-work of divorce laws in the different provinces, depending on the laws in force in each province at the time it joined Confederation:

Ontario and Quebec residents could attempt to obtain a divorce in the United States, but the validity of such decrees could be subject to review in the Canadian courts on the issue of domicile.[16] In 1885, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a New York divorce was valid, even though the husband was living in Montreal, as "the burden was on the husband of showing that he had actually changed his domicile animo et de facto".[17] The consequences where a divorce was not recognized (e.g., it was obtained in a divorce mill, such as Reno, Nevada once was) and where one of the parties had already remarried proved to be awkward in certain cases.[18]

The UK Act provided that a husband could sue on grounds of adultery, but a wife would have to allege adultery together with other grounds.[19] In 1925, Parliament provided that a wife could sue on grounds of simple adultery.[20]

In 1930, Parliament extended relief to deserted wives, by providing that, in the provinces where divorce was available, they could pursue proceedings on the grounds of desertion, so long as there had been separation from the husband for at least two years.[21] In 1963, provision was made for the Senate of Canada to be able to dispose of parliamentary divorce petitions by way of resolution instead of by a private Act.[22]

Reform of the law

1968 Act

In 1968, Parliament passed its first Divorce Act, which established a uniform divorce law across Canada.[23] In addition to bringing about uniformity, the 1968 Act:

  • placed both spouses on an equal footing in pursuing a divorce and specified that the grounds included:[24]
    • adultery,
    • conviction of a sexual offence,
    • bigamy,
    • mental or physical cruelty, or
    • a permanent breakdown of the marriage, arising from a separation of three years' duration because of imprisonment of the other spouse,[a] addiction, disappearing in circumstances where it is not known where the spouse may have gone, inability or refusal to consummate a marriage, or living separate and apart during that time.[b][27] and
  • declared that "the domicile of a married woman shall be determined as if she were unmarried, and, if she is a minor, as if she had attained her majority",[28] with one year's residence in the province where the divorce order was sought,[29] and provided that foreign divorces would be recognized as long as the foreign jurisdiction had similar rules with respect to the wife's domicile.[30]
  • provided that, where proceedings were initiated in separate provinces by each of the spouses, the one that commenced first would normally be the one that would be allowed to proceed.[31] If both such proceedings were initiated on the same day, they would both be removed to the Divorce Division of the Exchequer Court.[32]
  • provided that judgment would be in the form of a decree nisi, which would only become absolute three months later, after the court was satisfied that all rights of appeal had been exhausted.[33]

1986 Act

In 1986, Parliament replaced the Act, which simplified the law of divorce further.[34] It brought forth several significant changes:

  • An application for divorce could be initiated by either spouse or both of them jointly.[35]
  • Breakdown of the marriage was specified as the sole ground for divorce, as evidenced by the spouses living separate and apart for the one year prior to the divorce proceedings (and being so at the date of their commencement), or by having committed adultery, or physical or mental cruelty, at any time since the celebration of the marriage.[36]
  • Domicile was no longer required, and a court had jurisdiction where one of the spouses had been resident in the province for at least one year prior to the commencement of the proceedings.[37]
  • The Divorce Division of the Exchequer Court became part of the Federal Court of Canada – Trial Division.[38]
  • The divorce became effective 31 days after the judgment granting it was rendered, provided that it is not under appeal.[39]
  • Foreign divorces are recognized for all purposes of determining the marital status of any person in Canada, provided that:[40]
    • for those granted after July 1, 1968, they were granted in circumstances that conformed to the Canadian rules relating to domicile that existed at the time;
    • for those granted on or after the new Act came into force, they were granted in circumstances that conformed to the Canadian rules relating to residence immediately before the commencement of such proceedings; but
    • the rules of law relating to the recognition of divorces (otherwise than under the Act) remain in effect.

Later amendments

Religious divorce (1990)

While divorce is a civil matter in Canadian law, lobbying from Jewish women's groups such as the Canadian Coalition of Jewish Women for the Gett[41] served to highlight the problem of agunah in Canada, and the connected problem of obtaining a get in the Jewish rabbinical courts. The Act was amended in 1990 to provide that:[42]

  • a spouse (called the "deponent") may file an affidavit upon the other spouse identifying the particulars of the marriage, the nature of any barriers to remarriage in the deponent's religion that are within the other spouse's control, whether such barriers have been removed, or, where a request has been made to have such barriers removed, whether the other spouse has failed to remove them;
  • the spouse served with the affidavit has 15 days to respond that such barriers have been removed to the court's satisfaction; and
  • the court may dismiss an application by the other spouse, and strike out the other spouse's pleadings, where no response to the deponent's affidavit is received.

There are still certain complications arising from the application of this provision.[43] In one Quebec case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that an agreement by divorcing parties, providing that the ex-husband would proceed forthwith to obtain a get, provided grounds for the ex-wife being able to obtain damages as a result of him reneging on it.[44]

Same-sex marriage and divorce (2005)

During the period 2001–2005, same-sex marriage began to be available as a result a series of court cases in almost all provincial and territorial courts, which held that same-sex marriage was required by Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[45] In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada held in the Reference re Same-Sex Marriage that such marriages were within the exclusive legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada, but declined to address the s.15 argument.[46]

In 2005, Parliament passed the Civil Marriage Act, which made same-sex marriage the law throughout Canada,[47] and also amended the Divorce Act to change its corresponding meaning of "spouse" to mean "either of two persons who are married to each other."[48]

Later Canadian and foreign court proceedings revealed complications arising from the application of private international law, so that, while same-sex marriages solemnized in Canada may be legal when its jurisdiction, they must also be valid according to the rules of domicile that apply to the celebrants.[49] As well, the Divorce Act's one-year residence requirement resulted in Canadian divorces not being able to be granted to spouses who are both non-resident.[49] The CMA was amended in 2013 to provide for a separate divorce process to be available, outside the Divorce Act, to nonresident spouses in the province where the marriage took place, and such divorces have immediate effect.[50]


  1. ^ but only two years' separation was necessary in cases where the respondent was convicted of death or was imprisoned for a term of ten years or more, where all rights of appeal had been exhausted[25]
  2. ^ but a petitioner who had deserted the other spouse had to wait five years before presenting such a petition[26]


  1. ^ Divorce Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. 3 (2nd Supp.) .
  2. ^ Backhouse 1986, pp. 267-270.
  3. ^ Da Costa 1969, pp. 129-130.
  4. ^ Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, (U.K.) 20 & 21 Vict., c. 85 (as amended to 1868)
  5. ^ An Act for the temporary Government of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory when united with Canada, S.C. 1869, c. 3, s. 5
  6. ^ Walker v Walker [1919] UKPC 58, [1919] A.C. 956 (3 July 1919) (on appeal from Manitoba)
  7. ^ Board v Board [1919] UKPC 59, [1919] A.C. 956 (3 July 1919) (on appeal from Alberta)
  8. ^ The English Law Ordinance, 1867, Ord.B.C. 1867, c. 70, s. 2
  9. ^ M., falsely called S. v S., (1877) 1 B.C.R. (Pt.1) 25, at 35 and 40 (B.C.S.C.). later held as rightly decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Watts v Watts [1908] UKPC 53, [1908] AC 573 (30 July 1908) (on appeal from British Columbia)
  10. ^ The British Columbia Divorce Appeals Act, S.C. 1937, c. 4
  11. ^ CCLC, art. 185
  12. ^ Backhouse 1986, p. 271.
  13. ^ English, Christopher; Flaherty, Sara (2003). "'What is to be Done for Failed Marriages?' The Supreme Court and the Recovery of Jurisdiction over Marital Causes in Newfoundland in 1948". Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. 19 (2): 297–321. ISSN 1715-1430., discussing Hounsell v Hounsell 1949 CanLII 281 (NL SCTD), [1949] 3 DLR 38 (8 April 1949), Supreme Court (Trial Division) (Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada)
  14. ^ Backhouse 1986, pp. 270-271.
  15. ^ The Divorce Act (Ontario), 1930, S.C. 1930, c. 14
  16. ^ Backhouse 1986, pp. 279-280.
  17. ^ Stevens v Fisk, (1885) 8 L.N. 42 (S.C.C. January 12, 1885).
  18. ^ "Canada Won't Permit Heir To Wed His Wife Over Again" (PDF). New York Post. 21 January 1938. p. 5.
  19. ^ Da Costa 1969, p. 129.
  20. ^ The Divorce Act, S.C. 1925, c. 41
  21. ^ The Divorce Jurisdiction Act, 1930, S.C. 1930, c. 15
  22. ^ Dissolution and Annulment of Marriages Act, S.C. 1963, c. 10
  23. ^ Divorce Act, S.C. 1967-68, c. 24
  24. ^ Da Costa 1969, p. 130.
  25. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 4(1)(a)(ii)
  26. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 4(1)(e)(ii)
  27. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, ss. 3-4
  28. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 6(1)
  29. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 5(1)
  30. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 6(2)
  31. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 5(2)(a)
  32. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 5(2)(b)
  33. ^ S.C. 1967-68, c. 24, s. 13
  34. ^ Divorce Act, 1985, S.C. 1986, c. 4
  35. ^ S.C. 1986, c. 4, s. 8(1)
  36. ^ S.C. 1986, c. 4, s. 8
  37. ^ S.C. 1986, c. 4, s. 3(1)
  38. ^ S.C. 1986, c. 4, s. 3(3)
  39. ^ S.C. 1986, c. 4, s. 12
  40. ^ S.C. 1986, c. 4, s. 22
  41. ^ "Resources for Agunot". jofa.org. Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  42. ^ s. 21.1, as inserted by An Act to amend the Divorce Act (barriers to religious remarriage), S.C. 1990, c. 19
  43. ^ Fournier, Pascale (2012). "Halacha, the 'Jewish State' and the Canadian Agunah: Comparative Law at the Intersection of Religious and Secular Orders" (PDF). Journal of Legal Pluralism. 44 (65): 165–204. doi:10.1080/07329113.2012.10756685. at 171-177.
  44. ^ Bruker v Marcovitz 2007 SCC 54, [2007] 3 SCR 607 (14 December 2007)
  45. ^ Hurley, Mary C. (2 February 2005). "LS-502E - Bill C-38: The Civil Marriage Act" (PDF). Library of Parliament. pp. 6–8.
  46. ^ Reference re Same-Sex Marriage 2004 SCC 79, [2004] 3 SCR 698 (9 December 2004)
  47. ^ Civil Marriage Act, S.C. 2005, c. 33
  48. ^ S.C. 2005, c. 33, s. 8
  49. ^ a b Kirkby, Cynthia (9 March 2012). "Legislative Summary of Bill C-32: An Act to Amend the Civil Marriage Act" (PDF). Library of Parliament. pp. 2–3.
  50. ^ Civil Marriage of Non-residents Act, S.C. 2013, c. 30