The Brazilian-born former girlfriend of a Quebec multimillionaire has scored a major legal victory that could affect 1.2 million people in the province who, like her, shared a home without marrying.
Quebec's highest court ruled on Wednesday that the province's Civil Code discriminates against common-law spouses by denying them the same recourse to alimony as those who wed.
The ruling fell like a bombshell in Quebec, the common-law capital of Canada. With one in three couples cohabitating without a marriage certificate, the province even ranks as among the top common-law enclaves in the world, beating out liberal strongholds like Sweden and Denmark.
The decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal means that the woman, whom the media has nicknamed "Lola," can return to court in a year to seek spousal support from her wealthy ex-partner.
The court declared Section 585 of the Civil Code unconstitutional and left the Quebec government one year to review its position.
"The message today is, with love and passion come duty and commitment," said Lola's lawyer, Anne-France Goldwater. "This is a victory for all those common-law spouses who lived in the shadow of old social stigma."
Quebec is the only province in Canada that distinguishes between married and unmarried couples as far as spousal support; children of unmarried couples in the province are entitled to child support, but ex-spouses could seek alimony only if they had been married.
Quebec originally came up with the provision to give people freedom of choice, but it may not have anticipated how much marriage would dwindle: Nearly 35 per cent of couples in the province live together without marriage, and 60 per cent of children are born to unwed couples.
Wednesday's ruling could have a far-reaching impact on thousands of ordinary people - overwhelmingly women - who give up careers to care for children in live-in relationships.
Still, the couple involved in the high-profile spat, who cannot be named because Quebec family law protects the identities of their three children, were far from typical.
The extremely successful entrepreneur met Lola on a beach in her native Brazil when she was 17 and he was nearly twice her age. He flew her to Montreal and they maintained a lavish, globetrotting lifestyle of private jets and luxury yachts. They had three children.
The man said he never tied the knot because marriage was not his "cup of tea."
After they split up, the man paid $35,000 a month in child-support; the woman, however, was seeking $56,000 a month in spousal support and a $50-million lump sum. Quebec's Superior Court rejected her bid.
But the appeals court said Quebec's Civil Code violated equality provisions of the Canadian charter, and its failure to protect common-law spouses reflects the "stereotype" that these couples aren't "stable and serious enough to merit the protection of the law." By doing so, Quebec was excluding a third of all couples from protections aimed at the family unit.
Many unmarried couples are unaware they were denied the same rights as married couples, said Lola's co-counsel, Guy Pratte. "You can't say people were making an enlightening choice," he said.
The court compared the situation of unmarried couples after break-ups to that of women in the workplace; while these women are no longer stigmatized, they earn less because of historical discrimination.
In Quebec City, Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said the government would study the decision before commenting. "We have to see what the consequences are on unmarried couples but also on married couples."
With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec