Quebec's Court of Appeal has ruled that people who were in a common-law relationship in Quebec do have the right to sue for alimony.

The court has, however, given the government one year to replace the provision in the Civil Code, anticipating it will be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The decision will have far-reaching implications for Quebec couples who have never legally married.

Multi-millionaire's break-up

The court was ruling on one specific case involving a Quebec multi-millionaire's split with his common-law wife.

Neither member can be named because of a publication ban protecting the privacy of their three children, but the couple has been given the nicknames 'Eric' and 'Lola' in media reports.

A 2006 court ruling ordered Eric to pay $34,000 each month as child support for the couple's three children, but Lola argues that she should receive a monthly payment of $56,000 for herself, a share of the family estate and a lump sum payment of $50 million.

The businessman, who is now 51, argued he bought her a $2.5-million home and paid many of her other bills, which totalled more than $200,000 in 2008.

A court ruling from 2006 forced him to give her a car and to pay for a chauffeur, a cook and two nannies. He also buys plane tickets for the children and nannies for two trips a year as well as a daily allowance of up to $1,000 for the holidays.

The Court of Appeal agreed with Lola's argument that the Civil Code is unconstitutional because it is discriminatory not to recognize the rights of partners in the relationship, as is done in the rest of the country.

The ruling does not set amounts for alimony or when it should be paid, and it does not insist that common-law couples are entitled to an equal share of assets accumulated during the relationship.

Denied alimony by Quebec Superior Court

In 2009, Quebec's Superior Court ruled against Lola's claim for spousal support, arguing that she should have married her boyfriend if she wanted financial security.

The current civil code in Quebec does not recognize common-law marriages, so anyone from a dissolved common-law relationship is not entitled to ask for spousal support or a share of assets; partners are required to pay child support and nothing else. However because common-law marriages are recognized elsewhere in Canada, many couples mistakenly believe they have the same rights and responsibilities as legally-wed couples.

Far-reaching consequences

Justice Julie Dutil wrote in Wednesday's judgment that 1.2 million Quebecers were involved in common-law relationships in 2006, amounting to 34 per cent of live-in couples in the province.

Anne-France Goldwater, the lawyer for the plaintiff, hailed the judgment.

"The court of appeal rendered a decision even more important than you can possibly imagine because the court chose to send a pretty strong message to the legislature," she told a news conference.

"The court of appeal is pretty absolute. You have to redo the law."

The lawyer rejected any suggestion the case was a simple man-versus-woman clash.

"This isn't the battle of the sexes," Goldwater said. "This is about the meaning of family in Quebec today."

She said the ruling will give common-law families the same respect, protection and benefits under the law as traditional families.

"Finally, the law recognizes common-law families as legitimate families."

As many as 60 per cent of children in Quebec are born out of wedlock.

"If we don't call them bastards anymore . . . then surely their parents should not be discriminated against, surely their parents are just as legitimate as married parents."

In a statement released by his lawyers, the defendant said "he had been drawn against his will into a debate on the constitutionality of Quebec law regarding spouses."

He said he has always respected the law and "will continue to do so if the law is amended to comply with a final ruling on this issue."

In Quebec City, Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said the government would study the decision before making any comment.

"We have to see what the consequences are on unmarried couples but also on married couples," Fournier said.

"The consequences are much more vast than on this just one case. We're talking about the Civil Code. It would be premature to give a position today."

Couple met in Brazil

Eric and Lola met in Brazil in 1992.

She was 17, he was 32, and they lived together for seven years before breaking up in 2001.

The wealthy defendant testified he told the woman during their relationship he didn't believe in the institution of marriage.

With files from The Canadian Press