CHILD SUPPORT PROCESSES
OPTIONS FOR CANADA

CHILD SUPPORT OPERATIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

There are a number of questions which must be addressed by a jurisdiction considering setting up a child support system. Some of the more significant queries are as follows:

  1. Is the model going to be based on mediation or decision-making or both?
  2. Will a multi-option approach be taken, focused on addressing the various types of cases in the most appropriate way?
  3. Is the model going to be centred in the court itself or rather, primarily administered through a court-connected service such as family mediation or conciliation?
  4. How much of an onus will be put on the parties themselves to produce the required financial information and fill out the required documentation?

This list of questions represents some of the basic starting point concerns and until addressed, the list of possible child support administrative mechanisms remains extensive. This report will focus on some of the attributes and characteristics of the more general approaches already operating to varying degrees in a number of places both within and outside Canada. Advantages and disadvantages of very specific approaches will depend on the available resources and structures already in place in a particular location. However, on a more general level, there are some common concerns that any jurisdiction should consider. These concerns are highlighted in this report.

Bearing these considerations in mind, a recommended general approach is outlined in Appendix A and the potential dispute resolution options to be integrated are illustrated in the continuum at Appendix B. The various potential components of the model are discussed separately in some detail in this report.

A. Education and Information to the Public

There is some dispute about the usefulness of providing an educational program when people are seeking child support. In some mediation programs where the focus is on custody and visitation disputes, the orientation and educational programs usually take place at the outset of the process. Many of these programs do not contain a child support component but rather, focus on the custodial aspects of the case and on skills for coping after the breakdown of a relationship, both for parents and for children. Several programs contain only basic information about the child support process.

In Canada, education programs are becoming more commonplace in regard to domestic relations cases. Generally, the education programs are hosted by court-connected family mediation or conciliation services and accordingly, the focus of the programs tends to be the use of conciliation and other positive means of communication for addressing some of the emotional aspects resulting from the ending of a relationship.

A novel program was set up in Edmonton on February 1, 1996. Any person seeking to file an application for any domestic relations matter in the Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench must first attend a mandatory education program entitled "Parenting After Separation." At the time of filing in the court, the person is required to show proof of having attended. The program is co-sponsored by the Department of Family and Social Services and the Department of Justice. This six-hour long education program is offered over two days and scheduled regularly so the parties can attend the session most convenient for them.

The focus of the program is to highlight some of the factors concerning the children and to show people some skills of compromising. The objective is to get people to talk about conciliation. In regard to the court process, the participants receive an information booklet and an overview of the court process. Finally, there is also information provided about mediation and the available services. The course is run by family mediators and social workers.

The experience of some of the people involved with the program is that the more financial issues are discussed during a program like this, the more the tension in the room heightens. This statement applies particularly in regard to any attempts to discuss with the participants the amount of support they can expect. The participants' level of frustration could increase if they were told the amount of child support they could expect to pay or receive and then found a completely different outcome in court. However, information about the process itself would likely be useful if it were consistent and accurate.

The mandatory nature of the program has proven beneficial. People who would never otherwise know about or consider alternatives to litigation, such as mediation, are receiving an overview of such programs. In addition, if they choose to pursue their case through the adversarial process, they are more informed about how the court system works and are, therefore, more empowered.

In Manitoba, a somewhat different approach is taken through a pilot program recently established. A parent education program is also available to people commencing legal action to have family matters resolved. The program is triggered by a person's application to the court. The Winnipeg Family Conciliation Office is attached by modem to the court registry and can access file information including the name and address of the applicant, the specific application made and the relief sought. If both parties' addresses are available in the file, the staff of the office then sends letters out to them informing them about the education program. The program is not mandatory.

These are only two of a vast array of novel projects being established throughout Canada in response to a perceived need to better orient and inform people about their options when family relations break down. Many of the education programs are relatively new and evaluations are ongoing. However, the people directly involved with the implementation and administration of these programs would be able to provide insight about whether or not they see parent education as a viable part of a child support model on the local or provincial level.

If an educational component were to be incorporated into an administrative child support process, the two features people would most likely want would be information about the guidelines themselves, perhaps including assistance with the guideline calculations, and information about the process to follow to secure the child support. In regard to the program's overarching philosophy, these issues are not necessarily compatible with some of the more emotionally based issues that currently account for the greater part of existing education programs in many places.

It might be worth setting up a distinct program, which is solely informational in nature, and which contains practical information about procedural matters such as how to obtain a child support order. This form of education is already provided in parts of California through the Family Law Clinic programs staffed by family law facilitators. The family law facilitator program in San Jose, California, provides both informational and forms preparation workshops. The informational workshops:

give an overview of the family law process, what to expect and how to present a case in a hearing, and some detail of certain areas of the law, e.g., child support. The workshops can be very informative for the participants on points of law that are difficult for a self-represented party to research, e.g., often a parent will ask when a judge might attribute income to any "unemployed" parent.[10]

The forms preparation workshops are separate sessions aimed at assisting people in small groups who may need assistance with filling out their court forms. Constance Jiminez, Director of the San Jose Family Court Clinic, states:

Modification of child support and uncontested divorces are suitable for workshops. If staff can organize and set up the workshop, volunteer family law attorneys are generally very willing to teach or assist with the completion of forms.[11]

Here in Canada, such a program could easily be developed, building on existing resources. For instance, in the Yukon, the Law Line of the Public Legal Education program provides basic legal information. Do-it-yourself child support variation packages are also available.

B. Intake Services and Administrative Processing

A child support process will require some form of an intake process. More specifically, ultimate application of the child support guidelines necessitates a process whereby the required information is gathered in a systematic and efficient manner at an early stage. Particularly in those cases where child support can be processed as a single issue, administrative processing of the case proves beneficial. Generally, this stage of the process should be aimed at gathering information from both parties and where possible and with the compliance of the parties, settling the matter at this stage without the need to resort to a more involved dispute resolution process.

The specific characteristics of the intake process will be defined by the overall nature of the implemented model. Most jurisdictions will be building their child support scheme onto existing structures and so it is worth taking note of how the current process for collecting information works. It may be that the existing information-collecting approaches could be revised to lend support to an expedited or dispute resolution-based child support scheme.

Court processes already provide for the collection of financial information from both parties prior to a court hearing. This gathering and exchanging of information between the parties is central to the adversarial process and, as such, administrative rules have been designed to foster efficient information exchange. Generally speaking, there is provision in the court rules for exchanging financial information and registering it with the court. Each party is responsible for serving the relevant documents on the other party and for providing a copy to the court prior to a scheduled hearing. Ideally, then, the court possesses the parties' financial information prior to the decision-making stage of the process.

The benefit of expanding on these existing court processes is that they are already in place and familiar to the public. However, it should be noted that the existing process at the superior court level has been designed for parties represented by counsel. The framework may not be entirely user-friendly to the average member of the public who finds him or herself without any guidance about the process.

Some of the American systems premised on alternative dispute resolution make use of the information-gathering processes already operating in the courts. For instance, in Florida, the family file is referred to family mediation services after it is filed with the court. During the course of the mediation sessions, the personnel of the court-annexed service rely on the financial information provided by the court registry.

In those states and Commonwealth countries where child support administrative schemes have been set up, the administrative process functions precedes the court process. In these jurisdictions, the intake process is directed by the administrative agency and the information-gathering approaches have been incorporated into the administrative process itself. Almost the complete reverse of the court-initiated approach, the information gathered by the administrative agency may ultimately funnel into the courts if so required.

It is recommended that an adapted administrative system based on the experience in Washington, Oregon, New Zealand and Australia be integrated at the intake stage of the child support process. The focus of these established systems rests on gathering information from both parties where possible. At this stage, it is helpful to give the obligor the opportunity to provide the required financial information without needing to resort to more formal sanctions. The benefit of this kind of system is that it provides both parties with the opportunity to avoid confrontation where possible. The required components of this stage include:

  1. gathering information from both parties;
  2. performing the required calculations;
  3. allowing the parties the opportunity to challenge the amount of child support assessed; and
  4. providing referrals to other related services where appropriate.

Washington and Oregon have set up successful child support administrative schemes. These schemes operate automatically in AFDC cases, where at least one child is being supported by social assistance. Alternatively, any parent may request the services of the administrative agency at any stage of the process. The two states are quite similar to each another in regard to collecting information.

Washington

The Washington child support formula is based on the income shares model, which means that both parents' gross and net income and assets are considered. In addition, age and number of children, child care costs, special medical needs of the child(ren), cost of providing the child(ren)'s health insurance, second family involvement, long-distance transportation costs and education costs are also considered. Reasons for deviating from the standard calculation include: sources of income and tax planning (i.e., income received from outside sources including a new spouse or relationship, investments, gifts and prizes, etc.).

The Division of Child Support can establish a child support order administratively for parents receiving social assistance or for parents who apply for the services of the Division. In the latter case, the parent requesting the services of the Division of Child Support fills out an application. The applicant must meet certain criteria set out in Washington statute.[12] The child support enforcement officer then prepares a Notice of Proposed Child Support found at Appendix C of this report. This document is then sent to the applicant for approval. If the applicant disregards the notice entirely, the case will be closed. If the applicant does not agree with the proposed amount, the support enforcement officer then negotiates with the applicant. If upon negotiation the applicant agrees, the regular procedure of serving the obligor is triggered.

In these cases, where the applicant agrees with the proposed amount of the order at any stage and for all AFDC cases, a Notice and Finding of Financial Responsibility, shown at Appendix D to this report, is sent to the obligor by certified mail. The obligor has 21 days within which to return an objection to the Division of Child Support. If the obligor responds with a request for a hearing, the division's personnel set a hearing date 90 days into the future. If an objection is not received within the allotted time, a default order is entered against the debtor. The default order is signed by the support officer who has had conduct of the file throughout the entire process. Immediately, the order has all the force and effect of a court order.

If the applicant does not agree with the proposed amount of child support, even after negotiation with the support enforcement officer, a Notice and Finding of Financial Responsibility - Hearing Requested, is sent to the obligor. This form notifies the obligor that the other party has already objected to the amount of child support assessed. The form is found at Appendix E.

If one of the parties objects to the amount of child support assessed, the support officer then takes measures to bring the two parties to a consent agreement on the amount of child support. The ongoing negotiations conducted by the support officer involve telephone calls, letters and in-person interviews with one or both of the parents, depending on the particular circumstances of the case. Often, these negotiations result in settlement of the case without the need to progress to the administrative hearing itself.

The Washington modification process resembles the child support establishment process to a certain extent. The current practice is that, for an AFDC case (a child or children who are being supported at least partially by social assistance), a modification review takes place every three years.[13] For all other cases, the modification review takes place upon the request of one of the parents. As with child support establishment cases, the employment income information is available to child support agency personnel via their computer system. Gathering accurate income information about the self-employed parent proves more problematic.

The modification process is commenced upon the application of either parent. The case is managed by the enforcement officer responsible for ensuring the payments are made. It is not generally seen as a conflict to have the same officer involved in both enforcing payments and processing requests for modification from either parent. At this stage of the administrative process, it is possible that the modification will apply either to an administrative child support order originally established through the administrative process, or to a court order for which one of the parents has subsequently requested assistance from the child support agency. In the latter case, the initial administrative processing of the modification request serves as the intake stage of a process which will ultimately culminate in the courts if necessary.

This administrative intake processing could potentially be incorporated into a Canadian child support system at the front end. For both administrative and court orders, the first couple of steps of the process are the same. Once the application for a modification has been received from one of the parents, a Notification of Review is sent out to the other parent. This form is accompanied by a Child Support Schedule and a Financial Declaration, which both parties are required to fill out, sign and return. The parents are informed that a review of their file will take place in 30 days and that they are required to return the enclosed forms. The enforcement officer reviews the forms to make sure they have been fully completed and assesses whether or not there should be a modification based on the information supplied by the parents. The minimum qualifications for a child support modification provide either that the current monthly amount of support would change by at least 25 percent and at least one hundred dollars a month. The other possible basis for a modification is that the total change over the life of the order should be at least $2400.00.

If the financial information is not forthcoming from one of the parents, income information is gathered from other sources instead. In the case of self-employed parents, the child support agency will utilize the same imputed income scale, dependent on the age and sex of the parent, as the basis for the modification case.

After the review has been completed, a Review Findings Notice is sent by certified mail to both parents to advise them of the results of the review. The finding may be that the case does not meet the criteria for a modification or, if it does, it would include the amount of the revised support order. If the parents disagree with the finding they can request a modification conference to discuss it. A modification conference is an informal meeting between the officer and one or both of the parents. One or both of the parents may bring income and other information pertinent to the officer's findings.

In the case of a request for a modification of a court order, the file is forwarded to the prosecuting attorney's office once it has been reviewed. The prosecuting attorney takes the matter to court. In the case of a self-employed parent for whom income has been imputed, sometimes the judge will not accept imputed income as an adequate basis upon which to modify the child support order. These cases prove somewhat problematic in the Washington administrative scheme. The judge might dismiss a modification case unless accurate information is gathered about both parents' financial resources.

Oregon

Like Washington state, the Oregon child support formula is also an income shares model. Income considered in assessing child support includes: the parent's available financial resources, reasonable necessities, the net income remaining after any necessary withholdings, the parent's ability to borrow money, the number and needs of other dependents, any special hardships of the parent, the needs of the child(ren), the desirability of the custodial parent remaining at home for the sake of the child, tax consequences and financial advantages afforded to either parent by a third party. The criteria for departing from the formula include such factors as the special needs of the child(ren), child care costs and second family involvement.

The administrative child support scheme closely resembles the Washington model. Both states' approaches typify the American administrative child support approach operating in various states.[14] In Oregon, as in Washington, the administrative child support establishment and modification processes apply to the range of Title IV-D cases, both cases involving children being supported by social assistance (AFDC cases) or private applications. At the first stage, the State of Oregon issues a notice to the parties a Request for Administrative Hearing on the obligor by certified mail and on the obligee by regular mail. This form is found at Appendix F.

Once the parties have received the notice, they both have the right to:

  1. agree with the support amount as assessed;
  2. ignore the support amount as assessed; or
  3. disagree with the support amount.

In the first two scenarios, the proposed order sent out to the parties is then filed with the court as the new support order. The involvement of the court at this stage of the process differs from the purely administrative model operating in Washington. At this stage, the county court sends a copy of the new support order to the Department of Human Resources for enforcement procedures.

If either party disagrees with the suggested support amount, he or she must return the written request for a hearing (Appendix F) within 20 days after receiving the documents. An administrative hearing is then set, to take place within thirty to 60 days, and the department sends a Notice of Hearing to the other party. This form is found at Appendix G. The parties are requested to testify about their finances before an administrative referee of the Employment Department Hearings Unit. The parties receive a copy of the referee's decision within seven to 14 days after the hearing. At this point, the parties can agree with the referee's decision or disagree with the order by way of an appeal to the court where the referee's order was filed. If the disputing party does not attend the administrative hearing, the state attributes the party's income based on the most recent information available.

For modification of an existing order, the Oregon process is quite systematic. First, the request or notice for modification is received. The existing order is then assessed to determine whether it is at least two years old. If it is not two years old, the applicant receives an administrative review decision declining the request for a review of the existing order. The only exception to this general approach is in the situation where the obligor requests cancellation of a child support order because he or she has gone onto public assistance within the last two years. In this case, the request for a review may be accepted. If the order is at least two years old, or if the obligor is on public assistance, agency personnel then send both parties the following documents:

  1. Initial Notice of Review and Adjustment (Appendix H) (this form is used to notify the parties 30 days prior to starting the review and adjustment);
  2. Uniform Income Statement (Appendix I) (this form is a financial questionnaire used to obtain information necessary for computing a child support order); and
  3. Medical Insurance Option.

After the 30 day period has passed, the review modification process commences. There are a number of forms that could be prepared at this stage of the process, depending on the specific requirements of the case. If, based on the financial information returned by the parties and/or available through other sources of information about the parties' financial status, the determination is made that a modification would be appropriate in the circumstances, the State's Motion for Modification and Proposed Order is prepared (see Appendix J) and sent to both parties. If the decision is that the modification should be disallowed or the order cancelled entirely, a different form is sent out. In any case, enclosed with any of these forms are:

  1. Request for Administrative Hearing (Appendix F);
  2. Support Computation Worksheet;
  3. a Child Support Notice to either the obligor or obligee;[15] or
  4. the other party's uniform income statement or, if the obligor's financial information is unavailable, a notice to the obligee that minimum wage has been imputed for the obligor.

The parties then have 30 days to request a hearing in which case the same hearing process as for establishment cases would be triggered. When the hearing order is received from the Employment Department Hearing Unit, the order is filed with the court in the case of a support order that was originally administrative.

If the order sought to be modified was originally judicial, a slightly different process occurs. In this situation, the administrative order (whether subsequent to a hearing or in the case of default when the parties have not objected) is docketed with the court and an Order Approving Administrative Order (Appendix K) is prepared and sent to the parties, along with a Notice of Intent to Enter Order/Judgment (Appendix L). The parties have 10 days from the date of service to object to the proposed order in which case, the matter would be set down for a court hearing.

Australia and New Zealand

In both New Zealand and Australia, the Taxation Office records provide the basis for establishment and modification, and the onus is then on one of the parties to dispute the accuracy of the information found there. In other words, the financial assessment procedure in those two countries is even more direct than in the American administrative schemes. Since the taxation offices oversee the child support agencies in the two countries, the required financial information providing a basis for a child support assessment is immediately accessible. The tax return filed the previous year forms the basis for the initial child support assessment sent out to the obligor or debtor parent.

In Australia for instance, if the parent seeking child support does not already have a child support order, he or she can apply for the services of the Child Support Agency by filling out an Application for Child Support Assessment. The form requires the applicant to provide certain information including the following:

  1. personal data about oneself;
  2. one's own taxable income for the last two financial years and the tax file number;
  3. the name and address of the "paying parent" and, if applicable, the name and address of the other (paying) parent's current employer; and
  4. information about the children including particulars of the current custody and access arrangement.

Upon receipt and initial processing of this application, including an assessment based on available tax records to determine the appropriate level of child support, the "paying parent" or obligor is then contacted with a Notice of Acceptance, Assessment and Registration. The Child Support Agency instructs the parent to do the following:

  1. check the assessment and contact the Agency if it has used any wrong information on it;
  2. read the enclosed Schedule of Payments to find out how much to pay and when to pay (and how to pay); and
  3. fill out the employment details … in the Child Support Handbook and return the form to the Agency within 14 days.[16]

Further, the parent is also notified to inform the Child Support Agency right away if any money has already been paid to the other parent in which case, it could be deducted from the amount to pay. The obligee or custodial parent is then sent a notice providing the following information:

  1. that the application for assessment has been accepted;
  2. the amount of the first payment;
  3. the period to which the first payment applies;
  4. the date on which the payment is due to the agency;
  5. the date on which the parent can expect the first payment;
  6. the regular monthly amount; and
  7. the dates the payments are due to the agency and also to the parent.

The agency conducts an annual assessment of the child support amount by reviewing the last filed tax returns. The paying parent is also able to file an application for a child support or maintenance change. This application is mandatory when any of the following occur:

  1. anything which affects the amount payable under a child support assessment or court order/agreement;
  2. (the person) gets another court order or agreement; or
  3. (the person) changes [his or her] name or address.[17]

In addition, either parent can send in an Application for Review of a Child Support Assessment when the parent seeks to ask the Child Support Review Office to reduce or increase the child support assessment based on special circumstances not taken into account in the initial assessment.

Both the American administrative models and the systems operating in New Zealand and Australia are premised on the child support agencies' ability to access financial information about the parties, without needing to hear directly from the uncooperative party. These features allow the systems a certain amount of efficiency not possible in a jurisdiction lacking this direct access to financial records and also dealing with legislated privacy rights of the parties. Information gathering is probably the most challenging component of any design to set up an administrative process and particular attention must be paid to this at a preliminary stage.

Traditionally in Canada, the courts and the processes attached to the courts have enjoyed the most clout in gathering information from uncooperative people. In the absence of direct and useable computer linkage with financial information sources, these existing procedures hold out the most promise in regard to setting up a workable administrative scheme, and they should somehow be integrated with the administrative scheme. Therefore, whatever administrative intake system is set up, it should probably be directly linked in with the court's current information gathering processes.

A Canadian Example - the British Columbia Family Maintenance Program

The British Columbia social assistance program provides clients with the opportunity to assign their rights to the Family Maintenance Program for the purpose of collecting child support from the other parent. Provincial legislation establishes that a parent on social assistance is under an obligation to attempt to secure maximum child support from the other parent. Otherwise, the custodial parent's social assistance payments could be reduced.

In regard to processing the case, the Family Maintenance Program resembles administrative schemes operating in other jurisdictions. It is worth examining this program because it is a Canadian example of how social assistance clients are currently being serviced by the government in this country. As noted, the administrative child support processing schemes in other jurisdictions outside Canada were originally set up to address the needs of social assistance recipients and have subsequently expanded in scope to assist those people who apply for child support services to establish or modify and enforce child support.

The British Columbia program is staffed by family maintenance workers who receive training about the relevant legislation - these people are responsible for case management. Upon receiving a client's request for services, the family maintenance worker then contacts the respondent (obligor) with a Notice of Crown's Intention to pursue child support. This notice states that statutory action will be taken on the client's behalf, describes whether the case is to establish or vary the child support order, clarifies that the Crown is taking action and encourages the respondent to contact the family maintenance worker so the matter can be settled by consent if possible.

If the respondent agrees to a consent arrangement, he or she is required to complete a Statement of Finances and to provide supporting financial documentation to the family maintenance worker, usually consisting of three tax returns. The family maintenance worker then either consults over the telephone or meets with the respondent to arrange the appropriate amount of child support. The custodial parent would usually not be present during this meeting.

If the respondent chooses not to consent, the matter will then proceed to court and counsel for the family maintenance program pursues child support through the court process.

The British Columbia Family Maintenance Program addresses the unique position of social assistance recipients who are not really in a position to bargain on their own behalf because of statutory obligation attached to receiving social assistance. For this group of people, a significant objective is to ensure that if possible, the custodial parent receives child support from the other parent in order to reduce the amount of social assistance paid to this person and her or his child(ren). Accordingly, for this category of cases, the most effective avenue will probably need to be expeditious and decisive as opposed to conciliatory. The existing program resembles the administrative processing options outlined above and could potentially be developed along the lines of these options.

C. The Role of Advocates

Throughout the United States and in other Commonwealth countries, the basic child support administrative schemes were originally developed to assist people on social assistance who could not afford to pursue their children's interests through the courts. The scope of the programs subsequently expanded to assist those people who made specific application for the services of the agency. Accordingly, the current situation is that social assistance recipients are automatically assisted by child support agencies whereas other members of the public can apply for these same services.

In many of the child support administrative models, the personnel of the administrative agencies involved in collecting and processing information, ultimately act as advocates for the children, making it clear to both the obligee and the obligor (both parents) that the agency is representing only the best interests of the child or children, rather than the interests of one or the other of the parents. Through this approach, the element of bargaining is completely taken from both parents in regard to the issue of child support.

This approach is particularly prevalent at the hearing stage of any scheme where both parents appear, as does the representative of the child support agency. This approach exists both in purely administrative and court-based models. Often, the first glance would suggest that this agency employee is representing the interests of the custodial parent who is seeking a child support order. This appearance of alliance between the one parent and the agency is rooted in the common objective of securing sufficient support for the child or children. Moreover, in those cases where the obligee has requested the services of the agency, the surface appearance is that the obligee is in essence a client of the agency. However, in all jurisdictions, child support agency personnel are trained to instruct the parents throughout the process that the agency represents the best interest of the child (or of "the state" in some places) and that both parents are independent parties in the process.

Having made this position clear, the agency's representative is generally more closely affiliated with the obligee because of the common interest of securing a child support order. In those jurisdictions where the administrative system culminates in the court with a hearing officer presiding at the hearing, the agency representative attends as an advocate for the position of the child or children. In some places in the United States, this function is carried out by the District Attorney's Office. In these places, the child support agency does the initial intake for the matter and then refers it to the District Attorney's Office.

This attendance at the hearing of a third party representative of the appropriate agency is integral to many of the administrative child support schemes operating outside Canada. The benefits are obvious:

  1. it takes bargaining of the child support issue out of the parents' hands;
  2. it could reduce the possibility of threats from the other party in regard to this matter once the process has been triggered;
  3. it evens out a potentially uneven playing field which might otherwise exist between the parties and obscure the best interests of the child - this process ensures the child's interests are properly expressed.

There is no reason why a child support system could not integrate this advocate role in the process. In most jurisdictions, there is a case officer in charge of a particular file. This person follows through from the initial intake stage to the hearing stage. Duties could include interviewing the parents, collecting and organizing relevant case information (as through a financial evaluation), preparing for the hearing and finally, speaking as the child's advocate at the hearing. An advocate function is particularly crucial in the Canadian context in cases where legislation establishes that an obligee (custodial parent) receiving social assistance has a responsibility to secure the maximum amount of child support. In these circumstances, an advocate is in an appropriate position to make a strong statement for the best interests of the child, based on a working knowledge of and continued involvement with the file.

It has also worked sufficiently in other jurisdictions to have the administrative child support system apply automatically in the case of a parent receiving social assistance. The benefit of these programs is that the cost to either the party on social assistance or the applicant is virtually nonexistent. In some places, application may involve a nominal fee but in needy cases, this fee can be waived.

In many jurisdictions, the hearing officer forum does not require the involvement of legal counsel because the hearings before hearing officers are more informal. The rules of evidence apply but are somewhat relaxed. The practice from one place to another varies - such a model could accommodate the role of counsel as appropriate. Where the agency representative is already present on behalf of the child, this approach may limit the potential role of the obligee's counsel who would presumably be seeking the same outcome - child support. On the other hand, the parties themselves may feel more secure in having their own advocates present their positions in this fundamentally adversarial system.

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