While the epigram “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies to many things in our fast-moving world, divorce certainly isn’t one of them.
Indeed, in this, our 15th anniversary edition of Divorce Magazine, we can attest to just how much divorce has changed over the past decade and a half. Everything from attitudes, laws, demographics, cultural mores and standards, media, technology, resources and more have combined to dramatically change the divorce system, divorcing people, and the divorce professionals who serve them.
To explore some of these changes, we interviewed renowned family court Judges on both sides of the border: American Judge Lynn Toler, and Canadian Justice Harvey Brownstone.
Our Interview with Justice Harvey Brownstone
DM: Justice Brownstone, from your perspective on the bench, what divorce issues have changed the most over the last 15 years?
JB: There are three things that have changed the most in the past 15 years. They are the Internet, the Internet, and the Internet! Judges have witnessed a complete revolution in both the composition and, unfortunately, the decomposition of relationships because of the Internet. And this has led to an avalanche of failed relationships that the court system must somehow deal with. And when I say avalanche I’m not exaggerating. It’s truly an avalanche. There’s no other way to describe it.
DM: How has the Internet helped create this avalanche?
JB: For starters, the problem today is that the Internet makes it so easy for people to meet and convince themselves that they’re madly, deeply in love. Of course most of them aren’t in love. They’re infatuated, excited, and swept up in the fantasy. They can pretend to be someone they aren’t, and they can just as easily be vulnerable to someone else’s deception.
DM: What are some of the implications of this trends that you’re seeing in court every day?
JB: There are many, and they’re all serious. Worst of all are the children who are caught in their parent’s reckless race to hook up. Many of these parents aren’t married, and they haven’t even lived together. But they figure that sending Instant Messages to each other somehow replaces the time-honored process of getting to know someone, building a life together, and making the profound commitment to bring a child into this world. But they’re skipping all of that. As a result, the court system is overflowing with cases involving couples who have never lived together but produced a child. This category of people is, by far, bigger than the married or common law people that the courts see. And it’s all because – or rather, through – the Internet.
DM: Are these cases harder or more complicated for the courts to deal with than more traditional cases involving married or common law partners? If so, why?
JB: When children are involved, yes, it’s more complex, because there’s no pre-separation parenting regime in place that the courts can use to see who the better parent is. The parents have no shared history. And so the courts have to make a determination based on, many times, very little evidence compared to other kinds of cases.
DM: How else has the Internet changed divorce over the past decade and a half?
JB: One key area is the explosion of marriages – and I mean that both in terms of volume, and what usually happens in those marriages; they explode – between a citizen and a sponsored individual from another country. Again, the Internet is the biggest factor here. Through various websites, lonely people fall for someone in another country who they’ve never met. After a while, the person goes over there for a visit. Of course, everything is great. It’s a vacation. It’s not real life. It’s a fantasy. Eventually, the other person is sponsored, comes here, and the marriage falls apart – because the sponsored party never intended to stay married. They just did it to enter the country.
DM: Isn’t that immigration fraud?
JB: Apparently, yes, but legally, it’s not so clear. Yes, fraud is illegal. But proving that someone deliberately misrepresented the truth in order to come into the country is a totally different matter. Of course, the lonely man or woman who is hooked by all of this knows it was a scam. But without proof – without some kind of document or something — there’s nothing the courts or Immigration Officials can do. Of course, don’t interpret any of this as me having a lot of sympathy for the men and women who do the sponsoring and end up getting screwed. They’re adults. Many of them are quite successful and exercise good judgement in their professional lives. But they totally suspend their common sense and ignore all of the red flags.
DM: One can only imagine how much more complicated this is when these couples have children.
JB: Yes, you’re right. Many times, there’s a bitter custody battle between the sponsored spouse who wants to go back home with his or her child, and the spouse who lives here. It’s devastating and heartbreaking when this happens, because the kids – even if they’re too small to even know what’s really going on – are affected or will be affected in many ways for the rest of their lives. And you know what’s even more unbelievable? There is this utterly false myth that many sponsored people subscribe to, which is the belief that if they have a child in Canada, that they will somehow get citizenship. It’s total nonsense. The child will have Canadian citizenship, but the sponsored parent will not. Unfortunately, this myth persists and convinces a lot of sponsored people to have children for citizenship purposes. As horrible and unethical as that sounds, it happens.
DM: What else is the Internet doing, or has done, to change the fabric and face of divorce in your court?
JB: There are two huge factors. One is the growing addiction to Internet pornography. It’s so easy to access, and I’m seeing more and more cases where a spouse, yes, usually men but not exclusively, are calling in sick to work or letting their marriage and life fall apart because of a porn addiction. This is also becoming an increasing problem with visitation, because children visiting their parent – again, it’s usually the dad — are often being exposed to porn on the computer. Sometimes the father is actually viewing porn online while the kids are visiting.
DM: You mentioned there were two factors – one of them being access and addiction to Internet porn. What is the other factor?
JB: The other is Internet gambling. Again, the same logic applies: it’s just so accessible online. In the past, if you wanted to gamble, you had to leave your house, take a trip to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, and so on. That took planning, effort and follow-through. And even as more casinos and other gaming options grew over the past decade – like slot machines and charity casinos and so on – you still had to physically go and gamble. But now with the Internet, you just click and it’s right in front of you. So we have more parents – men and women – acquiring and fuelling a gambling addiction through the Internet. I’ve seen countless cases where the spouse who doesn’t handle the family’s financial matters discovers, to their horror, that their spouse has cleaned them out through gambling. It’s tragic and it’s devastating, and it’s happening with greater frequency.
DM: We’ve spoken at length about changes that you’ve seen over the past 15 years. What about the next 15 years?
JB: I see some good things unfolding over the coming years, and some bad things. I’ll start with the bad. I’m seeing more divorcing people represent themselves in court, and I expect this to continue – and that’s bad. I’m a judge and have absolutely no self-interest when I say this: the belief that people should represent themselves in court is unfounded and disastrous. Yes, family lawyers are relatively expensive, but a bad divorce settlement is much more costly, takes longer, and is much more stressful. Even people who can’t afford a family lawyer should at the very least get a consultation, so they can get the basics. However, on the positive side, the court is making important adjustments to help serve unrepresented spouses. More information is being made available, more resources, and more support for spouses who want to seek mediation, collaborative divorce, or an alternative to litigation. But with all of this being said, my clear experience is that people should never represent themselves in a divorce. There are too many laws, procedures and protocols. People are not aware of the laws, and they’re signing away rights away out of ignorance – rights that they won’t get back.
DM: And what about the positive side? Any good news on the horizon?
JB: Yes, on the positive side I see more people willing to seek counselling during and after their divorce. As the old saying goes: marriages may end, but families endure. More people are recognizing that the services of a professional, trained counselor can be a wise investment that will pay dividends for decades to come – especially if children are involved, and co-parenting is going to be the new reality. And since I’ve been pretty hard on the Internet so far, I should step back and point out that, again, the Internet has the potential to be incredibly helpful, as well. There’s so much more information available now, and I see that increasing as the years march on. People are becoming more empowered and informed. For example, I’m currently hosting an online talk show, which is the first and only talk show hosted by a sitting judge. Without the Internet, that can’t happen.
Justice Brownstone has presided in criminal court, and since 2001 has presided exclusively in family court at the North Toronto Family Court. In addition to his role in the court and his work as an author, Justice Brownstone frequently comments on family law and divorce issues in the Canadian national media. He can also be heard on his online talk show at www.familymatterstv.com.