Phase 2 of the Survey of Child Support Awards: Final Report

2004-FCY-7E

2.0 METHODOLOGY

2.1 Research Design and Procedures

Following completion of the pilot phase of data collection for this project, a revised survey instrument was implemented that addressed several problems and issues identified during the pilot. As with the pilot survey on child support orders, the instrument used in Phase 2 was designed to record at each participating site all court decisions under the Divorce Act involving children.[5] Relevant data sources for completing the survey instrument included the following:

  • All interim child support orders in divorce files.
  • Final divorce judgments that specifically incorporate separation agreements, minutes of settlement or previous court orders.
  • Final divorce judgments that are silent on child support even though children are involved.
  • Orders varying divorce judgments.
  • Final divorce judgments that contain corollary relief orders.

In addition, it was discovered during the pilot phase that several other sources of relevant information for completing the survey instrument were available in files at certain court sites. The addition of an item on the revised instrument allows for the identification of the documents that were used to collect the data.

The unit of analysis for this project is the individual court decision, not the individual case. In other words, a divorce judgment involving child support for which a variation order is later made would be included as two separate cases in the database.

All provinces and territories except Quebec and Nunavut collected data included in this analysis in at least one site.[6] The sites that collected data for this analysis are:

  • St. John's, Newfoundland.
  • Charlottetown and Summerside, Prince Edward Island.
  • Halifax, New Glasgow, Sydney, Truro and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
  • Fredericton, New Brunswick.
  • Ottawa, Toronto and London, Ontario.
  • Winnipeg, Manitoba.
  • Saskatoon and Regina, Saskatchewan.
  • Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta.
  • Victoria, British Columbia.
  • Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
  • Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Federal-Provincial-Territorial Research Subcommittee members from each jurisdiction selected the sites to be studied in their respective jurisdictions. The Subcommittee was also heavily involved in the design of the survey and facilitated the site visits by the research team.

The contractor responsible for maintaining the database is Neurofinance Inc., located in Montreal. Neurofinance developed a computerized data input program that mirrors the paper survey instrument. In 2001, the data input process was moved to a web-based application, and data capture clerks now enter data directly at a secure internet site. The data analyzed in this report are from the version of the database received by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family on November 18, 2003, and include all valid cases (n=56,490) entered in the database from the beginning of Phase 2 in the fall of 1998 through November 14, 2003.[7]

Figure 2.1 presents the number and percentage of cases included in this database by province or territory of origin. The largest number of cases was from Alberta (39.5 percent), followed by 29.6 percent from Ontario, 6.8 percent from New Brunswick and 6.5 percent from Nova Scotia. The number of cases from Alberta was large because both major urban centres in the province, Edmonton and Calgary, were participating in the project. The large number of Ontario cases reflects the fact that it was the most populous jurisdiction, with three court sites taking part. The jurisdictions with the fewest number of cases in the study were the Yukon (209), Northwest Territories (251) and Newfoundland (477).

2.2 Data Quality Issues

One potential data quality issue that should be acknowledged is the differing availability of information for completing the survey instrument across participating sites. At some sites, the file available to data capture clerks contains all relevant documentation for a case, including any prior agreements or orders. At other sites, the available file contains only the final divorce judgment, which may be silent on child support because it was addressed in a previous agreement or order. While this could cause some variables to be underreported in the survey, it should not compromise the quality of the data that were available.

Although an attempt was made to train all data capture clerks and a standard coding manual made available, the fact that different persons across the country are collecting the information could affect data quality. Communication with coders has been ongoing throughout the project to minimize any effects on data quality. Survey team representatives conducted on-site data capturing training sessions with most of the data capture clerks following revision of the survey instrument in the fall of 1998. Further, a revised coding manual was developed for the revised questionnaire detailing the information to be coded for each item. CRILF maintained a toll-free help line for data capture clerks to answer questions regarding the appropriate way to code particular cases until April 2003. Questions from the data capture clerks are now directed to the Family, Children and Youth Section of the Department of Justice Canada.

Figure 2.2 indicates the source documents used to complete the instruments. Final orders were the most frequent source of information. These were available in 88.9 percent of cases. Affidavits (40.7 percent) and previous orders (15 percent) were also used in capturing data. Financial statements (1.8 percent) and minutes of settlement (4.7 percent) were the least frequently used. Final and previous orders, affidavits and minutes of settlement were considered the most reliable sources of data. Data capture clerks were instructed to only use financial statements if the information required was not available from any other source.

2.2.1 Limitations of Data Elements

Over the course of this initiative, certain data elements were identified as problematic for various reasons. This section identifies these elements and discusses their limitations.

Birth Dates of Children

Data capture clerks were only asked to provide the year of birth of each child involved in the case rather than the actual birth date. This meant that it was not possible to determine accurately all children who were over the age of majority as of the date of the order. As a result, data concerning children over the age of majority should be treated with caution. Capturing the exact birth date of the children would have allowed this determination.

Legal Representation

Legal representation for the parents was very broadly defined in this study to include any evidence that the parent had legal representation at any point during the proceedings for the current case. Thus, a parent who was represented by a lawyer in one meeting at the outset of the case would be treated the same as a parent who relied on counsel throughout a prolonged, contested case. It would have been preferable to collect more detailed information regarding the extent to which counsel was used in the case, as well as on the particular issues that required the most legal advice.

Disposition of Case

Data capture clerks were asked to indicate if a case was contested, uncontested or disposed of on consent. Further, information was also sought regarding the disposition of each issue dealt with in the case. In practice, data capture clerks had a great deal of difficulty distinguishing between uncontested cases and issues and those that were resolved on consent. For this reason, uncontested and consent cases were combined for data analysis purposes.

Spousal Support Order Amounts

As this survey, by design, only deals with cases in which children are present, the data on spousal support do not include all spousal support order amounts made in the participating jurisdictions. In particular, it does not reflect cases where spousal support was sought or ordered, but in which there are no children. Because collecting data on all spousal support order amounts was beyond the scope of this project, it should be recognized that spousal support as discussed in this report is not representative of all such order amounts made.

Custody

It was evident that some data capture clerks had difficulty distinguishing between “joint custody” and “joint guardianship,” which are not Child Support Guidelines terms, and “shared custody,” which is the term under the Guidelines used to refer to the situation where the child lives with each parent at least 40 percent of the time. For this reason, the terms joint custody and joint guardianship are not used in this report, and custody was determined using the amount of time the child(ren) spent with each parent, as determined by the data capture clerks. If a child spent 40 to 60 percent of time with each parent, the case was treated as shared custody.

Section 13 Compliance

Section 13 of the Child Support Guidelines specifies that certain pieces of information are to be included in a child support order. In practice, it was found that many child support orders do not include all of the information required by Section 13, thus limiting the extent to which data required for completing the survey can be obtained from the order. Further, in cases involving only one child, it is unclear whether including the name of the child to whom the order relates or for whom special or extraordinary expenses were ordered was considered necessary. Thus, the relatively low rates of compliance with some components of Section 13 should be interpreted cautiously.

2.3 Data Analysis Strategy

This report presents analyses of the database generated from the fall of 1998 through November 14, 2003. In cases where measures of central tendency are presented, both the medians (the point above and below which 50 percent of the cases fall) and the means (or averages) are presented because the median is less sensitive to the effects of extreme scores. Medians only are presented in tables and figures.

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