Here’s a good question: Is a mother entitled to unilaterally deprive the father of his access rights to their child, based on an incident – that she did not witness – in which the father punched the child’s grandfather in the face? Does it matter that she heard the news from the father’s recently-estranged ex-girlfriend?
Before you answer, here are the fuller facts:
The mother and father had a child together, and split up a few years later. The father, who had been dating and living with someone new for about a year, enjoyed unsupervised access to the now 6-year old boy, pursuant to a court order.
Things were going well with the arrangement until December of 2015. That’s when the father, the child, and his new girlfriend attended a Christmas family function hosted by father’s parents (i.e. the child’s grandparents).
The court, describing the recount of the incident given by the girlfriend in her court-filed affidavit, picks up the story:
She states that “the first time I witnessed [the father’s] rage was at his parent’s home”, about a week after Christmas. She states that they were about to sit down for breakfast when the [the father] became enraged because his mother did not prepare a vegan breakfast for him. She alleges he called his mother a “dustbag” and said “I hope you die”. He then went outside to have a cigarette. His brother … went out to calm him down and they started yelling at each other. [The girlfriend] went outside and saw the [father] swinging his fists at [his brother]. His father came out and intervened, and the [father] punched his father in the face.
Fast-forward two months. The father had recently broken up with his girlfriend (now ex-girlfriend), who took it upon herself to text the mother, complaining about the father’s behavior. In particular, the ex-girlfriend warned the mother about the incident at the Christmas family gathering that the mother did not attend.
The ex-girlfriend’s version of events was confirmed in an affidavit by the father’s brother; however the grandfather himself denied that the incident took place or that he was punched in the face.
Shortly after receiving the ex-girlfriend’s text the mother, apparently fearing for the child’s safety, decided of her own initiative that the father should no longer have access to the child, and refused to cooperate with his attempts. (She tried to get a court order without giving notice to the father, but it was rejected). In the following weeks, the father sent her three letters, putting her on notice that she was in breach of the court order. She continued to foil his access, until the father applied to the court to have the mother held in contempt.
The court considered all aspects of this rather unique scenario. By her own admission, the mother had disobeyed the court order, and persisted even after the father complained by letter. Her was motive clearly stemmed from concern over the child’s safety. But the key question was whether her disobedience was legally justified, due to the presence of serious risk of harm to the child.
After reviewing the evidence, the competing versions of the incident, and legal test for contempt, the court wrote:
In my view, the Christmas incident reported by [ex-girlfriend] falls short of demonstrating a serious risk of harm to the child. The child was not directly involved in the incident, and was apparently unaffected by it. It is noteworthy that, according to [the ex-girlfriend], this was “the first time” she was exposed to the [the father’s] “rage” even though they had been a couple since the preceding May. This suggests that this incident was an isolated one, and not part of a continuing course of conduct.
There is nothing about the December incident that gave rise to a situation of serious risk to the child that justified the unilateral action of the [the mother] in choosing to defy the access order. It is significant that the incident had occurred two months before she even became aware of it, and throughout that period she was of the view that access was going well.
In short, the mother’s decision was a gross overreaction to the information she received from the ex-girlfriend. The court found her in contempt.
For the full text of the decision, see:
Houben v Maxwell, 2016 ONSC 2846 (CanLII)