Children Come First: A Report to Parliament Reviewing the Provisions and Operation of the Federal Child Support Guidelines - Volume 1



For the family law justice system to work, family support obligations must be enforced so that parents pay their support fully and on time to children and their families. In Canada, the provinces and territories collect and disburse payments through maintenance enforcement programs. Over the past six years, the Government of Canada has taken a more active role, providing important legislative, operational, and coordinating activities that help provinces and territories improve compliance and, thereby, stabilize families experiencing family breakdown.

Currently, no "national" statistical default rate provides information on the number or proportion of cases of non-compliance, let alone the nature of the default.[67] However, it is generally agreed that between 25 to 30 percent of cases registered with the provincial and territorial Maintenance Enforcement Programs (MEP) receive full payment on time. Another 60 percent of cases involve some sort of default, but some money has been paid within the last year. The remaining 10 to 15 percent of cases involve parents who have either not made a payment in the last year or never made a payment. These proportions fluctuate from jurisdiction to jurisdiction for a number of reasons, including the way jurisdictions run their programs, their enforcement policies, the volume of cases, and provincial and territorial resources.

The Government of Canada has been providing the provinces and territories with legislative, operational, and funding support since launching the administrative MEPs in the early 1980s. On May 1, 1997, new federal measures substantially expanded the Government of Canada's role in promoting compliance with family support obligations. The Government has helped families to benefit from fairer child support amounts under the new child support guidelines and to receive their support payments in full and on time. To do this, it enhanced federal support enforcement laws, re-engineered the federal enforcement operational system to improve service, established a federal enforcement policy unit, increased project-based funding, and launched a comprehensive program of research on enforcement and compliance issues.

This report summarizes how the Government of Canada has addressed the needs of separated and divorced families in the area of compliance and enforcement of support obligations, and recommends ways to better achieve this objective in the future.


The Family Law Assistance Services (FLAS) Section of the federal Department of Justice runs the federal enforcement program services that underlie the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act (FOAEA) and the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act (GAPDA). This federal enforcement legislation provides a unique set of programs that benefit thousands of Canadians, including children, who otherwise would suffer the consequences of unpaid support payments.

To enhance its role, the Government of Canada amended both these acts in May 1997 so that it could provide the provinces and territories with additional federal enforcement measures. These amendments also removed technical and procedural barriers that kept the Government from making existing measures more timely and efficient.

Before the amendments, the FOAEA gave governments tools to find individuals who are not respecting a family provisions (support, custody or access) order.  FOAEA also provides for garnishment of federal payments in order to satisfy family support obligations. The amendments streamlined and improved the garnishment procedures. They also allowed the Government to search the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency databanks for information on individuals who are in default of a family support provision and to investigate a parental child abduction charge under the Criminal Code.

The amendments also introduced a new enforcement tool. Governments can now deny or suspend passports and specific federal licences to ensure compliance with family support orders and provisions.

The GAPDA allows the Government of Canada to garnishee and attach federal salaries and to divert pension benefits payable under the federal Superannuation Act to satisfy family support orders. The 1997 amendments streamlined notice requirements for garnishment of federal salaries and removed restrictive residency requirements for applicants for pension division. To help families whose support payments are in persistent arrears, the amendments included a special provision to allow pensions to be diverted before the pension becomes payable.

Before May 1997, the provinces and territories filled out forms manually to apply for these services. Staff in the FLAS office then key-captured this information and forwarded it on tapes to the participating federal agencies and departments, such as the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and Human Resources Development Canada.

This system worked, but improved technologies would make it work even better and faster. In May 1997, federal funding made it possible for different levels of government to take enforcement on-line and to speed the transfer of money to recipient families once a garnishee summons has identified federal moneys. By 1999, the computer system was adapted to the Web and made available to the provincial and territorial enforcement programs. This Web-enabled system gave governments the following benefits:


One of the biggest challenges in the area of maintenance enforcement is to ensure consistency of policies and programs. Each province and territory has its own maintenance enforcement program and legislation to back it up. But enforcing maintenance requires consistent, uniform policies and programs across the country. The establishment of a federal policy unit in the federal Department of Justice has been an important component of the enhanced federal measures on enforcement. Its larger presence allows the Government of Canada to better respond to the needs of families. It has ensured greater coordination of provincial, territorial, and federal efforts to improve compliance nationally and internationally.

The Department has worked to:

Since 1997, federal Department of Justice officials have participated in, and often chaired, the activities of three inter-governmental groups-the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force Enforcement Subcommittee (the Enforcement Subcommittee), the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Orders/Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Orders (REMO/RESO) Working Group, and the MEPs Directors.

These groups worked well together to produce a more cohesive approach to enforcement. The various committees brought about a better understanding of the areas of concern that allowed them to prioritize and develop action plans for their work. The provinces and territories said federal participation was integral to the groups' success.

The Enforcement Subcommittee worked on many important joint initiatives and reforms. For example, it worked on amending banking legislation to make it easier to serve support order documentation on banking institutions. The subcommittee also prepared a document called Operation Principles and Goals (OPG). The OPG "operationalizes" the Inter-Jurisdictional Maintenance Establishment and Enforcement Protocol adopted by FPT Justice Ministers in September 2000.  These documents will make it faster and more efficient to enforce inter-jurisdictional support orders nationally.

The Government of Canada has also been bringing provincial and territorial governments together to make it easier for them to reach agreements with other countries. In an increasingly mobile world, the provinces and territories are ensuring Canadian support obligations are respected by establishing more than 390 reciprocal agreements with American state governments and another 260 with European, Asian, African, Caribbean, and South Pacific national or state governments.

Through the Federal-Provincial-Territorial REMO/RESO Working Group, the Government of Canada has made it easier for different jurisdictions to reach agreement. It has done this by organizing in-person meetings (five so far since 1998) between working group members and foreign jurisdictions. Members negotiate reciprocal enforcement of support orders and recommend new foreign jurisdictions for future agreements. So far, the annual meetings have attracted participants from the United States, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Australia and the United Kingdom.

With federal coordination and support, the REMO/RESO Working Group has established important links domestically and internationally. It has developed uniform information materials and processing tools, which have been shared nationally and internationally, highlighting the need for more such tools.


For a number of years, the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Family Law Committee has been working on uniform reciprocal enforcement of maintenance orders legislation. This new legislation will replace each jurisdiction's present Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Orders (REMO) legislation. The new legislation will significantly streamline the process by which support orders are obtained, varied, and recognized in inter-jurisdictional cases, nationally and internationally.

At their September 2000 meeting, provincial and territorial deputy ministers of justice agreed to consider the new uniform Inter-Jurisdictional Support Orders Act (ISO). The federal Department of Justice supported and participated in sharing information about this Act, and it examined the Act's impact on related federal legislation and on the way support orders are enforced in Canada.

At their August 2001 meeting, the premiers decided to put new inter-jurisdictional support enforcement legislation in place by fall 2002. Provincial and territorial representatives have identified the need for ongoing federal involvement to assist in implementing activities to do so.



Federal legislation should harmonize with the new provincial/territorial legislation to resolve inter-provincial and extra-provincial support cases. Governments may also want to reconsider all the inter-jurisdictional sections of the Divorce Act.

When parties do not live in the same province or territory, they can use sections 18 and 19 of the Divorce Act to vary an existing order under the Act. If the court is satisfied that the issues can be adequately determined, a party can apply by using a two-stage process. First, one party (the applicant) applies to a court in his or her jurisdiction outlining a claim for a variation of the existing order. The request is then sent to the court closest to where the other party (the respondent) lives. A hearing is set in the second court, where the respondent can give evidence. The second court may then approve, deny, or vary the applicant's request and make an order accordingly.

This variation process was intended to give the applicant an affordable, accessible method of variation. It was based on similar procedures in existing provincial and territorial (REMO) legislation. However, the convenience of the two-stage procedure has been undermined by lengthy delays and the cumbersome hearing procedure. Evolving case law has also highlighted problems with those sections of the Act dealing with the jurisdiction of the court.

As noted, the provincial and territorial premiers plan to bring in new inter-jurisdictional support enforcement legislation by fall 2002. Since changes to REMO legislation will streamline the processes for establishing and varying support orders, there may need to be complementary amendments to the Divorce Act.


The federal Department of Justice worked closely with officials of other federal departments and other governments to better understand the importance of outstanding issues and initiatives related to federal policy and programs on enforcement. Some initiatives are being pursued, while others have been assigned a lower priority or discarded altogether.

For example, the Government has long wanted to amend the compulsory payments parts of the Queen's Regulations and Orders for the Canadian Forces. This amendment will make it easier to enforce support orders by removing the requirement for a creditor to get a separate court order on arrears of support.

Other work has involved helping the RCMP assess the costs of recovering passports debtors have surrendered under the new passport denial and suspension program. Also, the federal Department of Justice and the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency are continuing to study the idea that paying parents in default should have to file an income tax return, which was recommended by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.


During the Child Support Initiative, the Government of Canada extensively studied support enforcement issues to better inform policy discussions, improve program delivery, and inform the general public on enforcement issues. Before it did these studies, there was little research or national data available on family law issues, especially on enforcement or compliance.

The research had two major components. One component dealt with monitoring the impact of amendments to federal enforcement legislation, as well as the impact of improvements in methods used to exchange information between provincial MEPs and FLAS. The second component examined the determinants of support compliance and looked for ways to improve federal "trace and locate" information provided to the provinces.

A number of studies looked at the tracing and licence denial reforms. These studies looked at outcomes (such as "location of debtor" and "payments made") of a random sample of federal trace requests. The studies investigated how the current use of social insurance numbers affects the validation of FOAEA applications. They also studied the idea of instituting standard monthly and quarterly management reports on tracing, interception, and licence denial services.

One study showed that changes to the FOAEA computer system had improved its operational efficiency. However, the study also identified improvements that would take full advantage of the new system. It also showed that data extracted from the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency are most valuable to the MEPs for locating debtors' places of employment. The new federal licence denial scheme has been especially useful to the MEPs and has produced considerable results on a number of difficult cases.

By studying why people pay or do not pay their child support, the Government can improve programs and policies. Five provinces are collaborating in a federal study that is collecting detailed case information from the provinces' respective operational information systems. Cases are sorted by compliance status, and then both paying parents and recipients are interviewed by telephone to create profiles of "high compliance payors" and "low compliance payors." Preliminary results show that "high compliance payors" have some of the following characteristics:

Data are currently being collected from the last two provinces, which will effectively double the current sample of parent interviews. These additional data should help confirm some of the preliminary findings and provide other avenues of analysis to pursue. The final report for this project is scheduled for release in 2002.

The other major project was a feasibility study on developing and creating a "new hires" program in Canada to trace debtors.[68] The study consisted of three components:

The study recommended that the best data source for "new hire"  information in Canada would be the Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) databases. These databases frequently and quickly get "new hire" and "re-hire" data from employers. HRDC uses these databases to detect overpayment of employment insurance.

The Department of Justice and HRDC are presently discussing issues related to the implementation of the "New Employee Tracing Program." Administrative, technical and privacy issues will be addressed during these discussions.



Statistics Canada, working with its partners in the National Justice Statistics Initiative, should continue to explore options for collecting and disseminating information on  family law issues.

In the early 1990s, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, working with its federal provincial-territorial partners in the National Justice Statistics Initiative began feasibility work to explore options for collecting data on family law issues. As part of the Child Support Initiative, the Maintenance Enforcement Survey (MES) was undertaken.

The survey provides a much-needed overview of the characteristics and financial status of support orders, as well as of enforcement activities in Canada. More specifically, the survey provides information on caseload, case flow, and case characteristics (such as reciprocal status, type of recipient, source of orders, etc.). As well, the survey reports on various financial aspects of cases, such as payment history, amount of arrears, length of time since last payment, and some data on types and number of enforcement actions. It represents the first data to standardize definitions across MEPs for such important concepts as default and compliance.


The coming years will be crucial in the development of a national infrastructure for enforcing family support. To maintain the recent progress of all levels of government toward a more coordinated and uniform enforcement system, the Government of Canada needs to continue to assume a national coordinating role. The provinces and territories expect sustained federal involvement.


The Government of Canada should:

For more information on the federal role in supporting provincial and territorial support enforcement activities, please see "Federal Role in Support Enforcement in Canada" in Volume 2.


Through financial assistance, the Government of Canada has supported "family justice services" as a way to ensure that the family justice system addresses the needs and best interests of children in circumstances of separation and divorce. These programs and services help reduce conflict between parents, encourage parents to settle their disputes out of court when appropriate, and increase compliance with family support obligations. Federal funding has supported important court-based programs, community services, and enforcement activities developed and run by the provinces and territories, such as parenting education courses and mediation.

A key element that helped governments implement the Federal Child Support Guidelines was the Child Support Implementation and Enforcement Fund. In effect from April 1996 to March 2000, it provided financial assistance to provincial and territorial governments to cover part of the costs of implementing child support guidelines and new enforcement measures.

In April 2000, the Child Support Implementation and Enforcement Fund was replaced by the Child-centred Family Justice Fund. The new fund enlarged the focus of federal funding from implementing child support reforms to developing a better, more integrated set of family justice programs and services to deal with child custody and access, child support, and support enforcement issues.

Volume 2 includes more detailed information on federal funding activities and some insight into the services available to divorced and separated parents.


The Child Support Implementation and Enforcement Fund made up to $50 million available for activities that helped governments implement the child support Guidelines. This money allowed the provinces and territories to work with the Government of Canada on innovative, cost-effective programs, services, and procedures that help parties get child support orders and variations to existing orders.

The rest of the fund-$13.6 million-was set aside for innovative, cost-effective enforcement measures and processes, including national and international reciprocal enforcement of support orders.

For these resources, the federal Department of Justice and the provincial and territorial governments established an annual population-based allocation target for each province and territory.


As part of the framework for managing the financial assistance program, the federal Department of Justice has identified 11 principles to guide all governments as they decide what projects to propose and approve under the funding program.

In addition, the Government of Canada has worked with the provinces and territories on criteria to help the federal Department of Justice ensure that funded activities support federal objectives, while offering the provinces and territories the benefit of predictability in their year-to-year planning. The following were the priorities of the Government when it implemented the Fund.

coordinating activities to implement the Federal Child Support Guidelines.
Enhancing existing services:
developing or improving existing client and court services to meet workload increases.
Provincial and territorial guidelines:
adopting provincial guidelines that parallel the Federal Child Support Guidelines.
Public information:
supporting public awareness and understanding of the Federal Child Support Guidelines.
Innovative approaches:
developing, testing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating innovative ways to meet the demand for variations to existing support agreements and orders, and for new agreements and orders.
monitoring the effects of the legislative changes.

The following were the priorities of the Government for the enforcement component of the Child Support Implementation and Enforcement Fund.

FOAEA enhancements:
developing and enhancing provincial and territorial computer systems and applications used to access services under the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act.
monitoring the effects of system and administrative changes, and of enhancements to enforcement mechanisms.
Maintenance Enforcement Survey:
supporting changes to provincial and territorial information systems designed to meet the data-collection requirements of the national Maintenance Enforcement Survey managed by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.
Innovative approaches:
testing innovative approaches to improving support enforcement mechanisms.
Public information:
delivering public legal education and information to increase awareness of changes in Maintenance Enforcement Programs.
Responses to workload increases:
changing administrative processes, upgrading systems, adding staff, and enhancing services to meet anticipated demands for variations and new child support orders.


All levels of government recognize the need to integrate family justice services to better help parents and children when parents separate and divorce. This recognition led governments to expand the scope of the funding program.

When the child support Guidelines were put in place, provincial and territorial governments modified existing programs and services. They also tested and implemented new approaches. Many of these services can address child custody and access issues, as well as child support and maintenance enforcement. For example, many jurisdictions have introduced parent education programs or broadened existing programs to include child support information and to stress front-end solutions such as consent orders.

Similarly, both child custody cases and child support cases can be effectively resolved with mediation services and other alternative program delivery strategies that increase the involvement of both parents in their children's lives. Recognizing this, and the need to develop and stabilize such services throughout Canada, the Government of Canada changed its funding to include custody and access services, as well as support and maintenance enforcement services.

The Child-centred Family Justice Fund, introduced in 2000–01, has three components.

Family Justice Initiatives:
These activities build on recent, successful collaborative efforts to help provinces and territories develop, pilot, implement, and evaluate family justice programs and services that deal with private family law matters in cases of separation and divorce. These programs and services include child support and support enforcement, as well as reciprocal enforcement, custody, and access activities that promote the best interests of children.
Incentive for Special Projects:
This funding develops alternative provincial and territorial mechanisms for resolving disputes, particularly processes for determining, varying, or recalculating the amount of child support.
Public Legal Education and Information and Professional Training:
This funding enhances knowledge, develops materials, and informs Canadians-including the legal community-about child support guidelines, support enforcement measures and programs, custody and access services, and related family justice matters. The federal Department of Justice also funds community organizations, professional associations, and other non-governmental groups involved in promoting public awareness and education, or professional development and training for family law professionals


The Family Justice Initiatives component is structured and managed the same way as the earlier Child Support Implementation and Enforcement Fund was. In other words, each jurisdiction gets part of the available funds based on its population. It must submit and obtain approval of the projects it proposes to implement or maintain in that year, and the projects must fall within one of the eight priority areas normally eligible for funding, as follows.

This funding is used to coordinate child support, support enforcement, and custody and access activities.
This funding is used for joint federal, provincial, and territorial consultations on family law.
Service enhancements and innovations:
This funding is used to enhance innovative child support, support enforcement, and custody and access activities under an integrated services framework, or to develop, test, implement, monitor, and evaluate new activities.
Alternatives for determining support amounts:
This funding is used to enhance alternative mechanisms for determining, varying, or recalculating the amount of child support, or to pilot and establish new mechanisms.
This funding is used to enhance innovative support enforcement activities, or to develop, test, implement, monitor, and evaluate new activities.
Reciprocal enforcement:
This funding is used for provincial and territorial efforts in reciprocal enforcement.
Policy and research:
This funding covers legislative and policy development, as well as research, monitoring, and evaluation activities related to child support, support enforcement, and custody and access.
Public awareness and training:
This funding is used to promote public awareness and understanding of child support, support enforcement, and custody and access issues, procedures, and services.


The Incentives for Special Projects component encouraged innovation among provincial and territorial services through a competitive process. As mentioned previously, this component develops alternative mechanisms for resolving disputes at the provincial and territorial levels, including processes for determining, varying, or recalculating child support. Recalculation frameworks must be timely, cost efficient for parents, and accessible to parents. They should also make it easier for parents to agree on the amount of child support.


The Divorce Act was amended in 1997 to provide for agreements between the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to set up a provincial child support service that would help the courts determine child support amounts and that would periodically recalculate child support orders based on updated income information.

"Provincial child support service" is defined broadly in subsection 2(1) of the Divorce Act and "means any service, agency or body designated in an agreement with a province under subsection 25.1(1)." It allows a wide scope for provinces and territories to designate an agency appropriate to their particular context.

Section 25.1 also outlines the procedure for recalculating the amounts in a child support order. It was included in the Divorce Act in 1997 to respond to two concerns:

In June 1998, the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on the Implementation of Child Support Reforms reviewed the application and implementation issues arising from section 25.1.

The provinces and territories realized that the concept of a child support service as set out in section 25.1 was not clear. They also found that a child support service or other mechanism for improving the child support dispute resolution process could not be developed in isolation from initiatives to improve the dispute resolution process for other issues affecting separated or divorcing parents, particularly custody and access.

The provinces and territories intended to share information and to develop faster, cheaper, and more consensual ways to resolve all family law issues, not just child support.

The work of the federal, provincial, and territorial governments in this area since 1997 has confirmed that integrated services are required to help families resolve parenting disputes and child support issues. Integration gives families alternatives to adversarial court processes. It is based on the premise that child support issues are often related to issues of parenting after separation and divorce.

In a child-focused approach, protecting the best interests of children must remain the primary consideration of decision makers when they are determining parenting arrangements. Giving parents an opportunity to resolve disputes without going to court may reduce the negative impacts of conflict that often occur after separation. Services such as counselling, mediation, and parent education programs can give parents the necessary tools and information to resolve disputes relating to parenting their children after family breakdown.

Because it is often impossible to separate child support issues from issues related to parenting of children after separation or divorce, some provincial programs have been able to build on and expand existing services in their jurisdictions to assist parents with issues related to their children after family breakdown. The shift towards integration of services in the provinces and territories is in keeping with the work of federal, provincial and territorial governments to promote existing services and to develop new services to help families undergoing separation or divorce with issues relating to the parenting of their children.

Through the Child-centred Family Justice Fund, some provinces have set up pilot projects to determine and recalculate child support amounts or to encourage early resolution of disputes to develop innovative ways to provide more efficient, consensual, and integrated family dispute resolution processes.

For a description of the various pilot projects in the provinces and an overview of experiences or frameworks in other countries, see Volume 2.


In 1996–97, before Bill C-41 went into effect, the federal Department of Justice and the provincial and territorial governments established an annual allocation target for each province and territory based on its population. The original allocations have been adjusted to accommodate changes in provincial and territorial planning assumptions and experience. The Department was also able to identify small surpluses in some jurisdictions that were then made available to other jurisdictions that needed more money because of greater demand. The following table identifies the actual allocations by jurisdiction for the period ending in 1999–2000, as well as projected transfers for 2000–01 through 2002–03.

Table 3: Federal Funding of Family Justice Services for the period ending in 1999-2000
Province 1996 - 97 1997 - 98 1998 - 99 1999 - 2000
British Columbia 20,000 1,610,478 3,003,501 1,928,133
Alberta 0 1,614,476 1,675,806 1,459,368
Saskatchewan  25,350 688,287 664,305 366,844
Manitoba 7,000 714,719 667,358 644,300
Ontario 0 6,248,734 4,525,321 3,610,133
Quebec 0 4,786,673 4,776,810 3,452,735
Nova Scotia 0 462,133 709,900 439,809
New Brunswick 5,500 340,334 449,753 470,647
P.E.I. 5,000 128,118 268,001 197,430
Newfoundland  0 297,537 404,903 323,276
Yukon 0 143,118 90,000 83,000
N.W.T. 0 119,500 226,176 144,471
Nunavut 0 0 0 138,118
TOTAL 62,850 17,154,107 17,461,834 13,258,264

Table 3: Federal Funding of Family Justice Services for the period ending in 1999-2000
Province 2000 - 01 2001 - 02 2002 - 03 TOTAL (1996 - 2003)
British Columbia 1,726,133 1,807,591 1,726,133 11,821,969
Alberta 1,419,078 1,407,998 1,279,578 8,856,304
Saskatchewan 508,698 596,844 476,698 3,327,026
Manitoba 532,530 577,156 532,530 3,675,593
Ontario 4,910,133 5,237,401 5,144,287 29,676,009
Quebec 2,826,530 4,167,892 3,427,735 23,438,375
Nova Scotia 417,809 481,830 439,809 2,951,290
New Brunswick 410,464 396,200 356,543 2,429,441
P.E.I. 195,000 181,765 150,000 1,125,314
Newfoundland 273,276 310,196 273,276 1,882,464
Yukon 272,647 180,391 150,000 919,156
N.W.T. 145,000 210,532 150,000 995,679
Nunavut 137,673 220,345 150,000 646,136
TOTAL 13,774,971 15,776,141 14,256,589 91,744,756