High-profile businessman bankrolls Quebec common-law case


From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

January 21, 2009 at 3:12 AM EST

MONTREAL — Montreal scrap-metal king Herbert Black isn't one to shy away from a good fight.

The high-profile entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist has tussled with - and won against - the giants of the international auction business, Sotheby's and Christies, over price- fixing.

He was awarded a handsome monetary settlement in 2002 from a prestigious London trading house in a case related to the brokerage's improper transactions in copper futures trading.

Now Mr. Black, 64, is taking a stand on an another front altogether. He's bankrolling a Montreal woman's court fight to obtain alimony from her multimillionaire former partner.

Mr. Black says he knew the woman.

The couple's identities cannot be disclosed under Quebec law.

Mr. Black says his goal in the case is to secure protection for all of Quebec's common-law spouses.

"What I'm concerned about is the big picture and the law in Quebec," he said in an interview yesterday.

"Whoever, whether it's the woman or the man, is the weaker one in a common-law union in Quebec gets shafted," he said.

He vowed to finance the woman's battle all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada if need be.

So far, her bid has cost him about $1.2-million, he said.

The woman, a native of South America who is in her 30s and who had three children with her ex, is challenging federal law as well as the Quebec Civil Code and seeking $50-million of her former common-law husband's fortune, alleging she was unfairly penalized because she never tied the knot.

She already receives $35,000 a month in child-support payments, but wants a separate sum of $56,000 a month for herself.

She is seeking the same financial support as an ex-spouse in a formal marriage would get. After common-law couples split in Quebec, a spouse is required to give financial support only to the couple's children.

Unlike the other provinces, however, Quebec does not extend the same protection to partners, because spousal support is mandated only for couples who married.

The woman's lawyers were back in Quebec Superior Court yesterday arguing her case.

They say it requires deep pockets to launch the legal challenge, which they expect to take to the Supreme Court of Canada.

While the woman has described a lavish lifestyle of sailboats, mansions and jet-setting, she is fighting on behalf of all women, her lawyers argue.

Most could never afford to take on an enormously wealthy ex.

"The case isn't about her," said Marie-Hélène Dubé, one of the woman's lawyers.

Quebec legislators came up with the rules on common-law marriage based on the notion they were giving couples the freedom to forgo the obligations of marriage; Quebec feminists supported the move, arguing that it gave women freedom from a patriarchal institution.

However, legal experts say that the freedom has left many former spouses - overwhelmingly women - impoverished, because they were unaware of their legal status when they decided to "shack up" without a ring.

Lawyer Anne-France Goldwater, who is fighting the woman's legal challenge, said in court yesterday the notion of granting women autonomy in a common relationship was utopian, while in reality it has condemned many women to poverty.

"Sorry," she told the judge, "but I never thought that being poor is noble."

With a report from Ingrid Peritz