Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

Sarah Cotton-Elliott said she believed her children took a back seat to arranging equal parenting

Legal experts and a mother whose ex-partner was convicted of murdering their two daughters hope changes to Canada’s Divorce Act will better protect children.

Changes to the law took effect at the beginning of March. They place more emphasis on the needs of children during divorce and, as a result, aim to minimize legal battles between parents over custody orders, said Prof. Sara Ramshaw, a family law expert at the University of Victoria.

She said the Christmas day, 2017 deaths of six-year-old Chloe and her four-year-old sister Aubrey were part of a recent discussion about the Divorce Act with her family law students.

A British Columbia Supreme Court judge sentenced Andrew Berry to life in prison without chance of parole for 22 years in December 2019 after a jury convicted him of second-degree murder in the deaths of his two daughters. Berry is appealing his conviction and sentence.

Berry was estranged from his partner, Sarah Cotton-Elliott, at the time he killed the girls.

Ramshaw said the amendments to the Divorce Act change the way the presence and prospect of violence, including a child’s direct or indirect exposure to family violence, is considered.

“It signals to parents that it’s not about them,” Ramshaw said in an interview. “It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about children and who the children should be spending time with.

“I’m really hoping that nothing like Cotton and Berry happens again.”

She said she will be watching future family court decisions to monitor where the issue of family violence factors in court parenting rulings.

Cotton-Elliott supports the changes to the law. When she was in family court, she said she believed her children’s safety and well-being took a back seat to arranging equal parenting for herself and Berry.

“There’s now a definition of all types of family violence written into national legislation, which has never been included before,” she said in an interview. “I think the judges will be paying closer attention to these kinds of things when looking at making decisions.”

Cotton-Elliott said she believes the amended Divorce Act has the potential to protect more children from family violence.

“I think for judges to make an informed decision in these family law cases they need a thorough understanding of family violence and the issues at play,” she said. “The awareness is key. I really hope that these judges will take into account and recognize all signs of abuse.”

Berry was living in an apartment in the suburban Victoria community of Oak Bay where he was behind on his rent and the power had been cut off, his trial heard. He had quit his job and spent his savings to support a gambling habit.

In sentencing Berry, Justice Miriam Gropper said he knew he was close to losing access to his children, prompting him to write a suicide note blaming Cotton-Elliott and his parents for his death. Instead, Berry killed his daughters and stabbed himself in a failed attempt to take his own life, Gropper said.

VIDEO: Oak Bay father who killed daughters eligible for parole after 22 years

In Canada, family law is a shared jurisdiction between the federal and provincial and territorial governments. The Divorce Act applies to married couples who are divorcing, while provincial or territorial legislation applies to unmarried or common-law couples, as well as married couples who are separated but not divorcing

The federal government says the changes to the Divorce Act are the first substantive amendments in 20 years.

In an online explanation of the changes, the federal government says the act did not previously include measures for dealing with family violence, but now the law defines it.

The definition includes any conduct that is violent, threatening, shows a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, causes a family member to fear for their safety directly or indirectly, and exposes a child to such conduct.

“Courts will have to take family violence into account,” the department said. “A list of factors have been added to the Divorce Act to help courts assess the seriousness of the violence and how it could affect future parenting when deciding what arrangements would be in the child’s best interests.”

Lawyer Shelley Hounsell-Gray, the Canadian Bar Association’s family law secretary, said the Divorce Act changes will hopefully bring more peace to families, including children and their parents.

“It’s not about punishment,” she said in an interview from Bedford, N.S. “It’s about working collaboratively and more holistically with families so that children and their parents will end up with better parenting plans.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

RelationshipsVictoria

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
110 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Provincial health officers announced 1,005 new cases throughout B.C.

Black Crow Cannabis is just one of Vernon's many pot shops now open in town. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Kelowna has highest cannabis fees in Okanagan

Vernon’s 14 stores pay second highest business licence fees

Serving alcohol has been altered in the Central Okanagan Public Schools policy regarding rental of school facilities for after-school hours events. (Contributed)
Alcohol option opened up at Central Okanagan school facilities rented for events

Central Okanagan Board of Education retains final approval for after-hours event approvals

Voting day for the upcoming Central Okanagan Board of Education by-election is June 26. (Contributed)
Central Okanagan school board election set for June 26

Kelowna voters will go the polls to fill vacant Kelowna trustee seat

Two bikes that were stolen after a West Kelowna parking garage was looted on April 3. Photo: Crime Stoppers Central Okanagan
Parking garage looted in West Kelowna

A car was broken into and six storage lockers were ransacked

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Black Press Media Weekly Roundup: Top headlines this week

Here’s a quick roundup of the stories that made headlines across the Okanagan, from April 11 to 16

Penticton bylaw officers tore down a “pretty significantly sized” homeless camp underneath the bridge near Riverside Drive Friday, April 16 morning. (Brennan Phillips - Western News)
Penticton bylaw tears down ‘significantly sized’ homeless camp under bridge

Many residents had made complaints about the camp before it was torn down

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

Premier John Horgan receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the pharmacy in James Bay Thrifty’s Foods in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. Premier John Horgan gets AstraZeneca shot, encourages others

27% of residents in B.C. have now been vaccinated against COVID-19

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Ford F-350s have been targeted in the North Okanagan by auto thieves since February 2021, Vernon North Okanagan RCMP data shows. (Gene J. Puskar - The Canadian Press/AP file)
Auto thieves target older Ford F-350s in Vernon: RCMP

Vernon Mounties remind all motorists no vehicle is immune to auto crime

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Most Read