Quebec will ask the country's highest tribunal for permission to appeal a court ruling that paves the way for common-law spouses to obtain alimony when they split from their partner.
The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled last month that a provision in the Civil Code discriminates against common-law spouses because it deprives them of a right that is guaranteed to married couples.
Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said Wednesday the province wants the Supreme Court of Canada to hear its appeal of that decision.
The appeals court was ruling on one specific case involving a wealthy and prominent businessman who did not want to pay alimony to his ex.
About 1.2 million Quebeckers were involved in similar common-law relationships in 2006.
That number represented about one-third of all couples in the province.
Mr. Fournier said Quebec wants clarification from the Supreme Court.
"The Quebec Court of Appeal is not giving choices to the legislator," said the justice minister. "It's just saying: 'Do the same thing as you do for those who are married.' We have to see if this is really the rule of law in this country. We have to see if we have more room to manoeuvre than what the court of appeal is saying, just to be sure to adapt the right solution for a situation lived by more than one million people."
The Supreme Court is expected to decide by next summer whether it will hear the appeal. Until then, the Civil Code provision stands.
Common-law couples have varying rights depending on where they live in Canada. In some provinces, they have alimony and property rights.
But despite its high percentage of unmarried couples, Quebec remains the only province that does not recognize common-law unions.
The businessman's lawyers had argued successfully in Quebec Superior Court he did not owe his partner because they were never legally married.
Superior Court Justice Carole Hallée ruled in July, 2009, that the couple's relationship could not be called a marriage under the wording of federal or provincial legislation.
She said Quebec deliberately chose to not subject live-in couples to the same obligations as those faced by married couples, especially with regard to spousal support and the sharing of assets.
The couple, who met in South America, her home country, when the woman was in her late teens and the man was in his early 30s, lived together for seven years before they split up in 2001.
The two cannot be named because provincial family law protects the identity of their three children.
The wealthy defendant testified he told the woman during their relationship he didn't believe in the institution of marriage.
She was seeking a monthly payment of $56,000 for herself, a share of the family estate and a lump sum of $50-million.
The businessman, who is now 51, said he bought her a $2.5-million home and paid many of her other bills, which totalled more than $200,000 in 2008.
The Superior Court justice upheld the $34,000 a month the woman received in child support.
A court ruling from 2006 forced him to give her a car and to pay for a chauffeur, a cook and two nannies. He also buys plane tickets for the children and nannies for two trips a year as well as a daily allowance of up to $1,000 for the holidays.
Anne-France Goldwater, the woman's lawyer, was not immediately available on Wednesday.
But back in November, she hailed the appeals court ruling, saying it would give common-law families the same respect, protection and benefits under the law as traditional families.
"Finally, the law recognizes common-law families as legitimate families," she said.
Ms. Goldwater noted that more than 60 per cent of Quebec children born in the past eight years were out of wedlock.
"If we don't call them bastards any more ... then surely their parents should not be discriminated against, surely their parents are just as legitimate as married parents."