This case challenged a regulation under Ontario’s Family Benefits Act, which only granted benefits to those who were described as “living as a single person” – also known as the “spouse-in-the-house” test. As a result, it denied benefits to women in relationships regardless of whether their partner actually lived with them or had a legal responsibility to them or the children.
LEAF supported Sheila Beaudette’s challenge of the regulation.
Sheila Beaudette received benefits under the Family Benefits Act as a single mother with one dependent child. The Director of the Income Maintenance Branch cancelled Ms. Beaudette’s benefits, alleging that she was living in a “spousal relationship” with a man. Although this man was the father of Ms. Beaudette’s son and they at times had an intimate relationship, they did not live together and Ms. Beaudette had no intention of marrying him. The man provided Ms. Beaudette with parental support under an out-of-court agreement, and occasionally gave her funds as a friend and/or access parent.
The Social Assistance Review Board twice affirmed the Director’s decision. Ms. Beaudette appealed to the Supreme Court of Ontario (Divisional Court).
Ms. Beaudette, supported by LEAF, argued that the Family Benefits Act violated ss. 7, 15 and 28 of the Charter and could not be saved under s. 1. She also argued that, even under the law as it stood, she was not living in a spousal relationship.
The regulation discriminated against women and violated ss. 15 and 28 of the Charter. The “spouse-in-the-house” test failed to capture the lived realities of single and/or low-income mothers. It was rooted in stereotypes of the “deserving” sole support mother and of women as economically dependent on men. In addition, it had a punitive impact on women whose lives did not conform to the nuclear, heteronormative family model.
The regulation violated s. 7 as it arbitrarily denied Ms. Beaudette access to resources necessary to support herself and her son. It also violated her privacy rights concerning her relationship decisions.
Following the launch of this case, and after law reform advocacy by LEAF and other organizations, the Government of Ontario amended the Family Benefits Act to change the definition of spouse. As a result, single parents who began living with a partner would not immediately be considered spouses and have their benefits cut off. Instead, after three years of living with that partner, recipients would continue receiving benefits if they demonstrated they were not in a spousal relationship.
LEAF’s advocacy in this area did not end with this case. After the Government of Ontario reintroduced the “spouse-in-the-house” test in 1995, LEAF once again went to court to argue that the test discriminated against women and single mothers receiving social assistance. For more information, see our intervention in Falkiner v. Ontario.
LEAF is grateful to Helena Orton and Robert Sharpe (now Justice Sharpe), counsel in this case.
Download the factum here.
Our records are imperfect, but we are doing our best to update them – if you were involved with LEAF on this case but your name is not reflected here, please email us at [email protected].