The Family Law Court System Functioning


It is worth noting that family law is one of the most complex and labor-intensive areas of jurisdiction because it is directly linked to the realities of life and, as a rule, affects people in their most sensitive moments. This places additional responsibility on lawyers, attorneys, and all participants in the judicial process. Moreover, the effective operation of the judiciary in the sector of family law is crucial for a harmonious development of society as a whole. The complexity of family law is reflected in the absence of identical cases; respectively, each event requires an individual approach. Significantly, the rights and responsibilities of spouses in a registered marriage would differ from those that are unmarried. For example, common-law partners do not have a statutory right to a division of property (Schwisberg, 2015). However, there are exceptions to the rule. The objective of this paper is to consider the factors that had the decisive weight in Pettkus v. Becker’s case ([1980] 2 S.C.R. 834), to analyze imperfections in the law, and to explore other ways to resolve disputes.

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It is essential to outline the facts of the occurrence to understand the case better. Mr. Pettkus and Ms. Becker were in a civil marriage for about 19 years (Schwisberg, 2015). During this time, the man was able to build a thriving business for the production of honey, which could bring him a decent profit. After many years of living together, the couple split up. After the separation, Ms. Becker and Mr. Pettkus took the case to court, (Pettkus – appellant, Becker – respondent) in connection with the fact that Mr. Pettkus maintained his revenue and gained assets while more than half of the woman’s income was spent to cover family expenses. These included all the current costs they had, the expenses needed for the maintenance of housing, purchasing basic goods and essentials, and many other expenditures that they were supposed to share (Schwisberg, 2015).

Thus, while living together, the man was able to accumulate his income, and the woman has spent hers. After splitting up, Mr. Pettkus ended up with the business, a steady income, and the land whereas the woman was left without any significant tangible assets. One of the arguments in defense for her position was that her ex-husband created a trust fund with the money that they were received together from the farm that belonged to both of them; respectively, half of the money should belong to her. Moreover, her position was that if it were not so, then these manipulations should have been considered illegal (Schwisberg, 2015). As a result of the court’s decision, Judge Dickson determined that the woman should get half of the firm’s shares and beehives. It is crucial that after this decision, many provinces in the country have recognized common law marriage and accepted standards governing them. However, the controversy of this decision is reflected in the fact that the woman had won the case but received no money.

Litigation Process

The doctrine of constructive law was considered in this case. Notably, Mr. Pettkus’s appeal was dismissed. It was reasoned that it would be unjust from the side of the man to retain the benefit solely since he knowingly allowed the woman to invest in the property and let her think that she would share the benefits received from it. Initially, the judge reviewed the law on resulting trust (Schwisberg, 2015). According to this doctrine, the property is awarded to the person who makes the payment, regardless of whether the property was acquired by one person or several people or if it was purchased jointly by the buyers. However, the judge stated that there should be a common intention to share the property from both persons to be able to evidence the resulting trust (Schwisberg, 2015). Moreover, after examining different literature on the topic, it was concluded that this doctrine could not be applied to the family context. Further, as there was no evidence of common intention, the constructive trust was the only option for this case.

The core of constructive trust lies in the fact one person deprives another individual of receiving benefits from the property, which has been purchased by both of them. It means that one party was unable to use the benefits from mutual property notwithstanding his or her right to it. It also means that the person using the benefit single-handedly used it for unjust enrichment while the man was able to accumulate his wealth and the woman had spent her income and resources to cover their mutual expenses. According to the decision by the Supreme Court, the woman was supposed to receive 150000 dollars, but she had to strive hard to obtain this money (Schwisberg, 2015).

Landmark Case

Notably, both individuals earned money. However, the money made by Ms. Becker was spent paying the bills (rent, food, and so on) while her live-in partner allocated part of the earnings to cover the car expenses and the other part would go to his bank account. This system allowed the man to save money during 19 years of their partnership. When Ms. Becker was hospitalized and became jobless, Mr. Pettkus started covering the expenses (Schwisberg, 2015). At that time, the family purchased a house with the money from Mr. Pettkuss’s bank account. Thus, technically, the land was bought by the man as his signature was put in the entitlement. Nonetheless, when the house required renovation or fixing, it would be performed using the money of the woman. Moreover, the bathroom was installed on her money as well. This way, the land, and the facility were bought by Mr. Pettkus, but all the other expenses were covered by Ms. Becker (Schwisberg, 2015).

Also, the family founded a business on the land owned by Mr. Pettkus. They were both engaged in bee-keeping, but their duties were different. Ms. Becker was responsible for physical labor, which included stock raising and other activities while her partner was liable for the financial issues and handled sales and payments (Schwisberg, 2015). A few years later, the couple purchased another property and paid for it from the man’s account. At that time, they were making good revenue on selling honey. However, the woman decided to leave her partner and he, in his turn, gave her several thousand dollars and a car claiming that the rest belonged to him. When the lawsuit commenced, the role of the judge was to determine the rightful division of the property. Even though the decision was made in favor of Ms. Becker, she committed suicide because of the inconsistency of the legal system. After the incidence, common-law relationships were considered a basis for the partition of family holdings (Schwisberg, 2015). Importantly, Mr. Pettkus did not pay the money he was obliged to disburse. After the assets had been liquidated, the woman’s lawyer requested a sum of money that was almost equal to what the woman was supposed to receive from her ex-partner. Consequently, the woman was left moneyless even though she had won the case.

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Weaknesses of the Litigation Process

It should be stressed that irrational or incomplete laws might lead to the emergence of cases when people start using these loopholes in legislation as a source and way for their civil disobedience. Some citizens can use the route around the law, which would enable them to obtain what they want without any subsequent punishment. Moreover, some decisions made by legislative bodies or certain extracts from a resolution might result in uncertainty or cause debates over them (Schwisberg, 2015). Such weaknesses exist because courts are believed and designated to solve any existing arguments and disputes that might arise in society.

However, this mission is not always implementable since not all minor issues can be tracked or considered due to the complex nature of human and business relations. That is to say, laws also have limits on their authority, and they cannot control every part of human life. Needless to say, law reformation proceeds indeed slowly; it is an intricate process, which requires many formal and other procedures to accomplish (Schwisberg, 2015). Such factors as civil disobedience, ignorance, or incompetence to enforce laws by authorities also set boundaries. Apart from that, such aspects as incorrect or awkward wording in law might lead to the emergence of loopholes or decrease the efficiency of it. Becker v. Pettku’s case is a vivid illustration of law ineffectiveness to protect and secure the rights of a person who wanted to receive what belonged to her by law. Apart from that, it is an example of the power of money and its influence on justice.

Even though Mr. Pettkus and Ms. Becker were an unmarried couple with no kids, they lived together as husband and wife. As discussed above, the man saved his income in a bank account while the woman covered all the essential expenses. The only expenses Mr. Pettkus covered were the purchase of the house, the business, and beehives (Schwisberg, 2015). Importantly, the acquisitions were made using the money from the account that could be managed by Mr. Pettkus solely; thus, according to the law of that time, all the assets and property belonged to him because all the payments were concluded under his name. Nevertheless, both individuals worked hard and were able to turn the farm into a prosperous business using their mutual efforts.

The central issue of this setting is that all the expenditures on the farmhouse where both of them lived and worked were disbursed by the woman and all the savings went to the man’s account (could be used by the husband only). Notably, they had two valuable land parts, a house, a successful bee-keeping business all registered in Mr. Pettkus’s name (Schwisberg, 2015). When Ms. Becker made her mind to leave her common-law husband, she could not share in any of the property according to the legislation of Ontario. Thus, notwithstanding the common effort during nineteen years, she was not supposed to receive any benefits due to the type of their marriage. The only resolution in this setting was to prove the rightfulness of the application of the constructive trust and the fact of unjust enrichment from the side of her ex-husband.

Limits of Law in the Case

To prove that Mr. Pettkus had violated the law and his conduct was lawless, three issues had to be proven. The fact of enrichment had to be evidenced, the presence of deprivation had to be proven, and the absence of rightful cause for the enrichment had to be identified (Schwisberg, 2015). Interestingly, the Court determined that these three aspects had been met. It was proven that the woman never received the benefits from the land or business she was supposed to get due to their mutual effort, and the man appropriated the assets illegally. Therefore, the woman won this case. According to the rule of court, 50% of the property and assets were held for her. However, it was decided that the sides should settle the financial issues by trust. The woman’s lawyer appraised the ownership at 300000 dollars and requested half of it for the client (Schwisberg, 2015). Also, as the assets were constructed for their mutual use, the benefits from them had to be shared as well, and the expenses for the legal support in all court levels were to be paid by the ex-partner.

Mr. Pettkus never fulfilled the court decision. The man was able to use the loopholes and imperfection in the law to devoid the woman of the money that was legally hers. To do that, he challenged the value of assets. After the court decision, he married another woman and passed those to her. Later, in one of the hearings, he claimed that he had no assets at his disposal (Schwisberg, 2015). Apart from that, much of the money was spent on lawyers; the woman attempted to seize the beehives to get her money, but her ex-partner prevented her from receiving it. He did not feed the bees, and when the court made him feed the insects, they were already dead. Thus, the woman received the beehives with no bees.

When the properties were sold for 69000 dollars as per the court decision, the woman also did not receive anything from this sum. Ms. Becker’s lawyers requested this money in exchange for the legal services they had been providing during the decade. Moreover, the research has revealed that the property was appraised incorrectly as well as the assets in possession of Mr. Pettkus (Schwisberg, 2015). Even though the woman won in all the three levels of court, this victory cost her a lot of money, which equaled the amount that she was supposed to get from her ex-husband. Therefore, the legal system did protect her rights and, at the same time, the woman was left moneyless. To reveal the weakness of the law, the woman committed suicide.

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Other Facts

As it was mentioned earlier, the Court entrusted the parties to resolve the financial aspects, which, in its turn, had complicated the execution of injunction. Moreover, the media and excessive attention from the press affected the development of the case strongly. As Schwisberg (2015) stated, the media, as well as Ms. Becker’s lawyer, had appraised the assets incorrectly and the press had spread the erroneous information, which was further reflected in the court records. Notably, the business was worth significantly less as it was claimed. Also, it was troublesome to liquidate them. It happened so that the process was worth the entire amount that had to be paid off. Apart from that, after the other assets were available for partition, Gerald Langlois (lawyer) took the woman’s part as payment for his legal services (Schwisberg, 2015). In the affidavit, the individual confirmed his intention to seize all assets. Thus, the legal representative took both parts – Ms. Becker’s and that of Mr. Pettkus. Importantly, the research by Schwisberg (2015) evidenced that more than 68000 dollars were collected. Interestingly enough, after the incident, Mr. Pettkus was suitable for financial assistance from the province while his ex-wife was not as the man was able to conceal his assets.

Alternative Dispute Resolution in Business Disputes

In terms of the alternative dispute resolution processes (ADR), there could be several options that Ms. Becker and Mr. Pettkus could have considered. These approaches serve as alternatives to the judicial system of the state, and they are often the most rational solution to the conflict (Duplessis, O’Byrne, King, Adams, & Enman, 2016). Negotiations help in resolving the dispute between the two sides without the involvement of the third party. Methods of negotiation can root in a search for a constructive resolution of the dispute or the desire of one party to defend his or her position. It is crucial that lawyers representing the interests of parties can conduct negotiations; in the case of Ms. Becker and Mr. Pettkus, this approach would allow carrying out the negotiation at the level of positional bargaining.

Conducting arbitration is also one of the ways to regulate conflict. This approach implies resolving the dispute by an independent, neutral person authorized to make a decision. Given the nature of the case, arbitration with the binding decision could have been considered (Duplessis et al., 2016). This type of dispute resolution would be based on the free will of the parties. Each side could elect their judges, and the losing party would be forced to comply with the decision made, which would also be supported by the state. Also, mediation could help to resolve the conflict. The essence of this approach is to eliminate the dispute with the help of a neutral mediator who aids the parties in achieving an agreement. It could have been one of the ways of a peaceful divorce in the case of Mr. Pettkus and Ms. Becker. The individuals could have appealed to professionals with specific qualifications, which would help to resolve the conflict without trial. Also, it would help to regulate the dispute without spending nearly all the savings on legal fees.

Disadvantages of ADR

Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that the ethical concerns that have arisen in the course of Pettkus v. Becker case, stress the complexity of family law issues and the difficulty of ADR processes’ implementation in that matter. Because the man was able to avoid fulfilling the injunction, it is possible to assume that ADR might imply even greater inequalities. The complexity can also be justified by the private nature of these processes. More importantly, ADR does not allow the development of a certain sphere of jurisprudence.

All the stakeholders would keep the resolution anonymous and in confidence, which would hinder the advancement in the family law. Due to confidentiality reasons, all the inequities that would arise in ADR would be kept a secret, and it would be no longer possible to change anything (Duplessis et al., 2016). Consequently, alternative dispute resolution might not only hinder people from solving the conflict but also the reverse – give a platform to the growing inequality and fraud. It is particularly critical in the case of wealthy people since they comprehend the benefits of ADR. It is easier to pay a certain amount of money to secure true assets and avoid public scrutiny. This leads to the impossibility to solve severe family law issues, which, in turn, results in the inability to reform the family law jurisprudence even though it is one of the most crucial aspects of the life of society.


Thus, it can be concluded that the case discussed throughout the paper had the paramount importance for legal legacy. Ms. Becker had won her case, which was an unprecedented event in Canada. It was the first occurrence when a common-law spouse who left his or her partner could regain the right to property. The unjust enrichment doctrine was considered the foundation for constructive trust. Since then, many Canadian provinces have adopted changes in family law in terms of a common-law relationship. At present, the citizens of Canada can divide the assets gained during common law marriage if all the conditions are met. The 15-year court battle led to a tragedy and revealed the imperfections of law and its inability to protect those in need of justice; nevertheless, its sorrowful end has resulted in a considerate advancement in the legal system of Canada.


Duplessis, D., O’Byrne, S., King, P., Adams, L., & Enman, S. (2016). Canadian business and the law (6th ed.). Toronto, Canada: Nelson Education.

Schwisberg, S. (2015). Swarm before me: The tragic case of Becker v Pettkus. Victoria, Canada: FriesenPress.

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