Duty to Care for Orphaned Minors

by Christopher Bruce

This article was originally published in the April 24, 1998 issue of The Lawyers Weekly. We reproduced it in the Summer/Autumn 2002 issue of the Expert Witness because the topic had arisen in one of our cases.

In a number of recent cases, the courts have been asked to calculate the loss of dependency of orphaned minors. In all of the reported cases, these children have been taken into the care of relatives – aunts, uncles, grandparents, or stepparents. An important issue that is raised by this arrangement is whether the expenditures incurred by the surrogate parents should be set off against the children’s loss of dependency on their natural parent(s).

In the leading Ontario case of Butterfield v. Butterfield Estate (1996) 23 M.V R. (3d) 192 (Ont.C.A.), for example, two children aged six years and six months, respectively, were taken into the care of their aunt and uncle. The defendants argued that the children’s claim of dependancy on their mother’s income should be reduced by the value of the expenditures which their aunt and uncle (who planned to adopt them) would make on them.

Similarly, in the leading British Columbia case of Skelding (Guardian ad litem of) v. Skelding (1994) 118 D.L.R. (4th) 537 (B.C.C.A.), the defendants argued that the children’s loss of dependency on their mother was extinguished because their father (with whom they lived) had remarried.

The differing approaches that have been employed to resolve this issue provide evidence of a fundamental division in our courts with respect to the purpose of tort law. Two conflicting paradigms can be identified.

In what I will call the ex post approach, the court takes the view that, as the tortious act has already occurred, that act cannot be undone. Rather, the best the court can do is to ensure that the victims are restored, as best as possible, to the position they would have been in had the act not occurred.

In the competing, ex ante approach, the court recognises that any decision that it makes in the current case may influence the behavior of parties in similar, future cases. Hence, what is important in the current case is to set a precedent which will direct future parties to behave in the socially desirable manner.

The appellate court in Skelding clearly adopted the ex post approach. Relying heavily on the Supreme Court decision in Ratych v. Bloomer (1990) 69 D.L.R. (4th) 25, the majority concluded that the stepmother had replaced the natural mother. Hence, no further claim was necessary to return the children to the position they would have been in had their mother lived.

Notably, this decision is exactly consonant with a well-developed line of cases which have concluded that a widow(er)’s loss of dependency may be extinguished upon marriage to a new spouse whose income is similar to that of the deceased. Particularly important for Skelding was the B.C. case of Ball v. Kraft (1966) 60 D.L.R. (2d) 35 in which both the widow and her children were denied compensation after the date of her remarriage.

In addition to its reliance on Ratych, the B.C.C.A. also defended its decision by reference to B.C.’s Family Relations Act. This Act imposes a legal requirement on parents to provide “reasonable … support and maintenance of the child.” As “parents” are defined in the Act to include stepparents and guardians, the court found that the services which Mr. Skelding’s new wife provided to his children were not “gratuitous.”

Interestingly, in making the latter decision, the court came into direct conflict with its own decision in Grant v. Jackson (1986) 24 D.L.R. (4th) 598 which it had made only eight years earlier. In Grant the court had held that services provided by a father to his children, following the death of their mother (his wife), were not required by the Family Relations Act.

Despite Skelding’s grounding in Ratych, the vast majority of cases dealing with orphaned children have been careful to distinguish themselves from Skelding. Most of these cases employ what I called the ex ante approach to justify their decisions. In particular, they argue that the precedent established by Skelding may create perverse incentives for the friends and families of orphaned children.

The leading statements of this view appear in Tompkins (Guardian ad litem of) v. Byspalko (1993) 16 C.C.L.T. (2d) 179 and Ratansi v. Abery (1995) 5 B.C.L.R. (3d) 88. In both cases, the trial judges argued that if Skelding was followed, the risk would be created that “… in some cases, family members who would otherwise take orphaned children into their care may decline to do so until or unless an award has been made in the children’s favour.”

And in Tompkins, Spencer, J. went further, arguing that “… a surviving parent may refrain from remarriage, advantageous from the children’s point of view, because the presence of a new spouse who replaces services to the children may reduce their award”.

These cases, therefore, adopt the view that the finances and services provided by family members are in the nature of collateral benefits and should not be deducted from the children’s dependency on the deceased parent.

Most of the cases that adopt this view also respond to the argument in Skelding that the Family Relations Act (or its equivalent in other provinces) imposes a legal requirement that a “parent” provide reasonable support.

In Butterfield (cited above), for example, the Ontario Court of Appeal implied that an aunt and uncle had no legal obligation to provide for the children, even though they intended to adopt the children formally. And in Ratansi (cited above) and Schellenberg v. Houseman (1996) 18 B.C.L.R. (3d) 209, the courts concluded that support provided by family members who had been appointed legal guardians was also to be treated as a collateral benefit.

Yet, B.C.’s Family Relations Act would have defined the family members in all three of these cases to be “parents.” Either these cases were in error or Skelding was.

Finch, J.A., the dissenting judge in Skelding, offered a resolution to this dilemma. He noted, first, that fatal accident legislation generally requires that the damages must have “resulted” from the death of a family member. Conversely, he argued, support received from a third party could not be considered to have offset the plaintiffs’ loss unless that support also resulted from the death in question. He concluded, therefore, that, as the marriage of Mr. Skelding to his second wife could not be considered to have resulted from the death of his first wife, the support provided by the second wife to Mr. Skelding’s children must be considered to be a collateral benefit.

This argument notwithstanding, the minority view in Skelding faces another challenge. Finch, J.A. argued that the income of Mr. Skelding’s new wife should not be offset against the children’s loss of dependency on their natural mother; yet it is well-settled law in Canada that the new wife’s income should be offset against Mr. Skelding’s loss of dependency on his first wife. This discrepancy remains to be “explained.”

To summarise, the courts’ treatment of claims by orphans for loss of dependency offers insight into a question that goes to the foundations of tort law. Should the courts concentrate strictly on the facts of the case at hand – the ex post approach? Or should they take into account the impact that the decision in the current case will have on the future behaviour of other individuals – the ex ante approach? Although the response to Skelding (and to Ratych) suggests that most courts are leaning towards the ex ante approach, the issue is far from settled.


Christopher Bruce is the President of Economica and a Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary. He is also the author of Assessment of Personal Injury Damages (Butterworths, 2004).