Gene C. Colman: a pioneering advocate of 'family rights'

By April Cunningham, Associate Editor

When a man went to Toronto family lawyer Gene C. Colman in the mid-1980s seeking joint custody of his children, Colman warned him to prepare for a lengthy court battle.

At the time, case law held that joint custody could only be awarded on consent, something the client’s ex-wife was not willing to give.

“I asked if he was prepared to take it to the Court of Appeal, and he agreed,” says Colman, now founder and managing partner of Gene C. Colman Family Law Centre. But a trip to the Ontario Court of Appeal turned out to be unnecessary. “Much to my surprise, we won at trial and there was no need for an appeal.”

Everything lined up, Colman tells Opposing counsel agreed to apply provisions of the new Divorce Act, which had just come into effect in 1986 and included the “friendly parent provision” that aims to maximize parental contact, he says. The section resonated with the judge, who also agreed with a psychologist's assessment that the parents should attempt joint custody since they agreed on many other aspects involving their children.

“Ours was the second case in Canada that awarded joint custody over a parent’s objection,” Colman says, adding the first case out of Newfoundland came out after his trial but before the judge presented the final decision.

“It was a precedent-setting case. So there I was, Mr. Joint Custody.”

The positive result for Colman’s client attracted the attention of fathers' rights groups across Ontario, who started asking him to speak on issues related to joint custody and family law generally.

Colman — who says he prefers the term “family rights” over “father’s rights” — starting hearing their stories, and developed a growing awareness of the issues faced by fathers plagued by the so-called “deadbeat dad” stereotype.

“I am pro equal-shared parenting; it all started with that case,” he says.

Colman is a founder of Lawyers for Shared Parenting and helped write proposed legislation aimed to revise the Divorce Act to better support shared parenting. Colman laments that Bill C-560 was defeated in Parliament two years ago.

He represents both men and women in all aspects of family law, with a particular interest in complex cases involving parenting and children’s rights - both on the civil and child protection sides of family law practice. He also relishes complex property and support cases.

“I love family law and I like to surround myself with people who share that passion,” says Colman, a father of seven and grandfather to a growing number of children.

His firm, based out of his Toronto home, currently includes two associates, and one articling student who will soon join as the third associate. His daughter, who has a master’s degree in conflict resolution, also works at the firm.

“I’m a family man, I’m very devoted to my work, and I’m devoted to the land of Israel,” says Colman, who considers himself a proud Zionist and spends a great deal of time in Israel with his wife.

His passion for family law dates back to his time at law school in the mid-1970s. During that time, the family law landscape was rapidly changing in Canada, he says, so it piqued his interest. He was also surprised to learn as a student that a “Canadian Journal of Family Law” did not exist. Undeterred, with the support of one of his profs, Colman actually started the Canadian Journal of Family Law becoming founder and managing editor. He remains on the publication’s advisory board and maintains an avid interest in the academic aspects of law. “I’m a frustrated academic,” he says with a laugh.

With Colman’s home-based office and frequent trips to Israel — where he works remotely — he says he has found a life balance late into his career.

“You have to keep your brain active,” he says. “Even with years of experience, sometimes the work becomes overwhelming, even aggravating, and there are moments when I question what I’m doing. Then I realize I really do like it, I like helping people, finding solutions and I love the intellectual challenge.”

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