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.

Tala MacDonald, a 17-year-old student at Mount Sentinel Secondary who is also a volunteer firefighter, has won the $100,000 Loran Scholarship. Photo: Submitted
West Kootenay student wins $100K scholarship

Tala MacDonald is one of 30 Canadians to receive the Loran Scholarship

Kristian Camero and Jessica Wood, seen here, co-own The Black Cauldron with Stephen Barton. The new Nelson restaurant opened earlier this month while indoor dining is restricted by the province. Photo: Tyler Harper
A restaurant opens in Nelson, and no one is allowed inside

The Black Cauldron opened while indoor dining is restricted in B.C.

First-year Selkirk College student Terra-Mae Box is one of many talented writers who will read their work at the Black Bear Review’s annual (virtual) launch on April 22. Photo: Submitted
An early shot of Nakusp’s Centennial building. (Contributed)
Nakusp library turns 100 years old

The instiution has more than books

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

Local carpenter Tyler Bohn embarked on a quest to create the East Sooke Treehouse, after seeing people build similar structures on a Discovery Channel show. (East Sooke Treehouse Facebook photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. carpenter builds fort inspired by TV’s ‘Treehouse Masters’

The whimsical structure features a wooden walking path, a loft, kitchen – and is now listed on Airbnb

The Attorney General’s Ministry says certain disputes may now be resolved through either a tribunal or the court system, pending its appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court decision that reduced the tribunal’s jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Court of Appeal grants partial stay in ruling on B.C. auto injuries

B.C. trial lawyers challenged legislation brought in to cap minor injury awards and move smaller court disputes to the Civil Resolution Tribunal

An Extinction Rebellion Vancouver Island (XRVI) climate change event in 2019 saw a large crowd occupy the Johnson Street bridge. Black Press File Photo
‘In grief for our dying world’: B.C. climate activists embark on 4-day protest

Demonstrators will walk through Vancouver for the first two days before boarding a ferry Sunday morning

Most Read