The child and spousal support system is in crisis. With two thirds of all support orders being ignored, deadbeat parents in BC owe over half a billion dollars in back support.
Spousal support orders are supposed to be enforced by the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program (FMEP). But FMEP director Chris Beresford told the CBC that the program only had one officer for every 725 cases.
Other officials told the CBC that about a quarter of the outstanding debts would likely be canceled if the parents returned to court to have the court orders reviewed.
Beresford told CBC that “The order may be old. The order may need to be changed. Parents are very very reluctant to go back to court to change orders”.
Victoria Family Lawyer Michael Butterfield echoes these thoughts, but is more sympathetic.
“Returning to court is very difficult and can be very expensive. Currently, FMEP has no power to vary a court order even if it is clear that the parent has no ability to pay. For many, they would rather give what money they have to their kids then spend it on paying to go to court” said Butterfield
Despite a great deal of promise, access to justice is still limited by cost. Legal Aid will provide assistance, but only when the parent faces jail time. According to Beresford, about 50 people each year are jailed for failure to pay.
According to access to justice advocates, many individuals – with a little bit of help – can navigate the court system. But currently, their perception is that it is too difficult or expensive. Lawyers can do more to assist these individuals by tailoring there services to better meet client needs.
“Client’s have to be discerning. They need to ask lawyers how they can help themselves and set realistic budgets for the lawyer. We see a lot of people using lawyers like consultants. Rather than having the lawyer do everything, they do a lot of the leg work and only use lawyers for the most difficult part of the process” said Butterfield.
Regardless for the reasons behind the problem, it is clear that the system needs to be fixed.
Michael Butterfield will appear live on CFAX 1070 at 9:30 am, October 23, 2014.