Legal Ease: 52 years of practicing law in an ever-changing landscape

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Spring is the season of hope and optimism. Some look for the first crocus leaf, some fall in love or start looking for a new home, others decide to retire. I’m in the last category.

April 1, instead of being a practicing attorney I became a member of the bar of Quebec as an “attorney in retirement.” What I am saying goodbye to has caused me to become nostalgic and has brought back memories of my 52 years as a practicing attorney.

There were very few women in law school or practicing law when I started out. Now, at least 50 per cent of law students are female. There were no locker rooms at court for women. My first locker was in the basement of the very old courthouse on Notre Dame, just beside the men’s bathroom. When the new courthouse was built we did have our own locker room, but as society evolved it became unisex—as I discovered one morning when changing my clothes to put on my robes. At least the bathroom I was now obliged to dress in was for women only.

Many other things have changed. When I started to practice, there was no such thing as divorce in Quebec and if a client wanted one, a private member’s bill had to be presented in the federal House of Commons. Adultery had to be proved, which usually required the services of a private detective as well as the collusion of a third person, namely, a co-operative female. We did have “separation as to bed and board,” but women were not allowed to sue before the courts without their husband’s authorization and so they had to ask a judge to grant them the permission to sue for separation. Because most married women didn’t work outside the home, they were unable to accumulate wealth and if the family broke up they could be left with very little.

This was especially true of farm wives and the wives of dépanneur owners. These women often did work to help their husbands but only the husband benefited from any capital growth.

Today we have “family patrimony,” which provides for the sharing of the family residence, furniture, car, pensions and registered savings. However, only married women reap this benefit; those living common law in Quebec do not. Since both spouses tend to work today, these new laws apply equally to each, leveling the playing field.

A piece of advice while I am still allowed to provide it: If the love bug hits you this spring, but like so many others you prefer not to add the word “matrimonial” to your bliss, enter into an agreement with your prospective partner regarding assets, support, children, etc. The idea may lack romance, but it saves tons of grief if the relationship ends.

Should you decide to purchase a home to live in with your spouse, as long as you’re married it doesn’t matter whose name it is in; both parties will have an equal interest in it. This is not so if you are not married. The house must be put in both names or somebody may find themselves without a place to live should the relationship end. Also, make sure to have the property inspected carefully.

In Quebec the seller is responsible for latent defects. But keep in mind that the defects must be latent, that is, not apparent, and the law requires that a buyer be diligent and prudent. So it would be prudent to investigate even the smallest sign that all is not well.

Act on your suspicions and don’t rely on what the seller may tell you. Keep in mind that the seller is obliged to warrant he has the right to sell the property and he is obliged to inform you of any third party rights. This can be a mortgage, a right to walk over the land, a right to have a window or balcony close by, a judgment registered against it or the right of a wife who may no longer be around. The notary in charge of the sale will ascertain that the title is clear and advise you if it is not. It is very prudent to follow his advice.

It used to be that the marriage ceremony was performed by a religious minister who was authorized by his church. Now it can be performed by a person designated by the minister of justice. We have religious and civil marriage. A divorce can be obtained not only on the ground of adultery but for many other reasons, including living apart for at least one year.

It is hard to say goodbye to something you have enjoyed doing over a long period of time.

When I am not permitted to give legal advice, I will still be able to write about the law and will continue to do so as a “lawyer in retirement.”


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