Summary of Activities for the Child-centred Family Justice Fund 2003-2009
Family Justice Initiatives (Part 2)
Maintenance Enforcement Programs (MEPs) are operated in all jurisdictions with the aim of ensuring compliance with family support obligations, including orders to support a child, a spouse or a common-law partner. These programs also attempt to ensure that support money flows to those who need it. Some provinces and territories used money from the Fund to embark on initiatives that would maintain, expand and improve their MEP. Others used funding to assist with issues relating to the establishment, variation and enforcement of inter-jurisdictional support. Activities in this area generally focused on the enhancement or extension of maintenance enforcement services in the jurisdictions.
Examples of particular MEP enhancements that were federally supported through the Fund included the establishment of a Section 7 Enforcement Officer position in Prince Edward Island. This province's Maintenance Enforcement Program had been receiving many orders and agreements containing clauses that were ambiguous and/or unenforceable. These clauses generally pertained to an order for one party to pay 40 percent of the expenses under section 7 of the Federal Child Support Guidelines, but what constituted a section 7 expense was not specified. This resulted in either one of the parties or the MEP having to take the matter back before the Court for direction. Often, orders and agreements also did not indicate when the obligation to pay a section 7 expense would terminate. An Enforcement Officer was hired to deal specifically with these cases.
Prince Edward Island also hired an Intake Enforcement Officer to divert calls from the Enforcement Officers and deal with basic inquiries, This significantly streamlined calls through the office, reduced the time to respond to client calls, and increased the number of clients accessing an enforcement officer for the purpose of enforcement.
Some activities that the Fund supported in Nova Scotia include: investigations conducted by a Field Officer with respect to payers who had never paid child support as ordered, or who were delinquent with payments and/or for whom the MEP could not find employment information; the operation of an information line to keep clients informed about MEP activities of the MEP; and the development of a new client access website that would increase both efficiency and client service. Enabling payers to transfer support payments electronically to the MEP will significantly decrease the wait times for release of payments to recipients and reduce risk of non-sufficient funds or lost cheques. The client access website will enable support recipients and payers to access portions of their file electronically. It will also enable reciprocating jurisdictions within Canada to have direct access to specific file information that they require for enforcement purposes. The technological enhancements that were developed will also enable the system to produce reports and ensure data reliability and replication.
Ontario used the Fund to establish the Trace and Locate Unit within the provincial Family Responsibility Office. This Unit conducts intensive trace and locate actions on returned mail. On average, the Family Resource Office receives 2,500 pieces of returned mail per month. Prior to the establishment of the Trace and Locate Unite, this mail would accumulate and no action would be taken. The new unit has been extremely successful and has exceeded its targets by tracing and locating not only recently returned mail, but also mail that was returned in the past. As of June 2005, almost 20,000 pieces of returned mail had been traced and located as a result of this work, and addresses on almost 53 percent of all returned mail has now been updated in the Family Responsibility Office's system. This has given enforcement officers the opportunity to take enforcement action on these cases.
Manitoba's Maintenance Enforcement Program used the Fund to set up a Compliance Unit in 2002‑2003, in order to establish consistent, aggressive enforcement practices for problem cases. The Maintenance Enforcement Program also consolidated the handling of preparations for all cases involving court default hearings. As a result, the Compliance Unit has gained fuller compliance with some of the most difficult files.
Nunavut used the Fund to operatea Financial Examinations Pilot Project. The objective of the project was to meet with debtors and try to reach payment arrangements on their arrears before settling the matter with the courts. The pilot project was tested in Iqaluit in the 2008‑2009 fiscal year. If the test results show that the project was successful, Nunavut plans to establish financial examinations in the communities where the Maintenance Enforcement Program accounts have the largest amounts of outstanding child support debts.
Nunavut also used the Fund to hire a consultant to carry out community consultations before the drafting of the Maintenance Orders Enforcement Act was finalized. Further consultations were to be conducted once the draft legislation was finalized to ensure the legislation meets the needs of the public. Draft legislation will be considered by Cabinet during the next Government's term of office.
Alberta introduced a Debtor Default Penalty Initiative to increase payment through new deterrents such as penalties, interest charges and fees for those who failed to meet their support obligations. Alberta also expanded its Maintenance Enforcement Program's Special Investigations and Financial Examinations Unit to Southern Alberta; expanded the Unit's operations to include field investigations such as physical surveillance of defaulting debtors; and conducted extensive research.
Saskatchewan hired a new officer to access Registered Retirement Savings Plan accounts, search property titles and locate other assets that could be used to enforce payments.
Several jurisdictions made efforts to communicate better with support payers. Several jurisdictions also used the Fund to improve their MEP's technological capacity to make the client's experience easier and to make the system more user friendly and more efficient. These technological improvements included automated bank services; individual Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) to access account information; automated voice information lines and information management systems. For example, New Brunswick redesigned its Interactive Voice Response to integrate with its new MEP computer system functionality. New Brunswick also undertook to design pamphlets to explain new Program capabilities pertaining to payment orders and how to make payment on-line.
Inter-jurisdictional Support Orders
All the provinces and territories enacted and implemented new inter-jurisdictional support order legislation. This legislation enables a province or territory to recognize, vary and enforce support obligations from other jurisdictions with which it has reciprocal arrangements. All Canadian provinces and territories have established reciprocal arrangements with each other as well as with some foreign countries. The legislation is somewhat different in each province and territory because of the unique needs of each jurisdiction, but the substance is similar.
The new ISO model is much less cumbersome than the former model used for the reciprocal enforcement of maintenance and support orders. The former model had two-stage and involved provisional and confirmation hearing procedures. The new model uses a more streamlined application process to establish or vary a support order. In the application process, a series of situation-specific forms is completed and sent to the jurisdiction where the respondent resides. The court in the respondent's jurisdiction will then conduct a hearing and make the order.
It is anticipated that these changes will improve the timeliness in obtaining and varying family support, and recognizing support orders. This, in turn, will lead to a quicker flow of support payments and faster enforcement if necessary. As part of the implementation process of these laws across Canada, each province and territory established a designated authority for the purposes of transmitting and receiving ISO applications. The Fund helps support legislative and policy development in the jurisdictions around ISO legislative enactments and subsequent implementation.
After proclaiming the new inter-jurisdictional support orders legislation, several provinces continued to enter into reciprocal agreements with additional jurisdictions to respect the legislation. In October 2005, Quebec hosted the conference of the National Child Support Enforcement Association. This was the first time the conference had been held outside the United States. It provided a venue for discussing international issues, common points of law and enforcement. There was a focus on best practices and obstacles. Other jurisdictions hired or assigned an individual to monitor these cases. Nova Scotia, for example, started a Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Orders unit to deal with inter-jurisdictional support order cases.
Support Variation and Administrative Recalculation of Child Support
The amount of child support is set by agreements and court orders. This amount can be varied as the personal and financial circumstances of separated and divorced parents and their children change. The procedure to vary an order has long paralleled the cumbersome procedure used to determine the original arrangements—an application must be filed with the court and a judge makes a new order varying the current order.
Some jurisdictions undertook to develop administrative recalculation services that would recalculate child support payments on a regular basis, based on the parents' updated income information. Section 25.1 of the Divorce Act allows the federal Minister of Justice to enter into an agreement with a province or territory, authorizing a designated child support service “to recalculate, at regular intervals, in accordance with the applicable guidelines, the amount of the child support order on the basis of updated income information” in the case of orders under the Divorce Act. The recalculated child support amount comes into effect 31 days after the parties are notified of their recalculation amount, unless one of the parents makes an application to have the matter reviewed by the court in the interim. Comparable provisions in provincial and territorial legislation allow recalculation of support orders issued under those acts.
Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Nunavut established administrative recalculation services for orders under the Divorce Act and provincial child support legislation. In 2007‑2008, Nunavut purchased ChildView Software to assist in determining amounts of child support payments. It was installed on all computers in the Maintenance Enforcement Program Office as well as in the public computer located in the Law Library.
British Columbia conducted a pilot recalculation program, while other jurisdictions also took steps to develop or implement such services. In Alberta, research regarding administrative recalculation of child support was conducted over the last fiscal year. This research led to the approval of a new justice service that would annually recalculate eligible court-ordered child support amounts based on changes in the payer's income. The Child Support Recalculation Program is expected to begin providing services in spring 2009.
Newfoundland and Labrador's Family Justice Services Western in Corner Brook, was expanded province-wide in fiscal year 2008‑2009 out of Corner Brook. This service aims to provide separating parents with an alternative to the court system. It was the first alternative program offered in the western region of Newfoundland and Labrador. Other services provided by FJSWestern included information sessions for adults on family law and parenting issues; mediation on custody, access, child support and spousal support; counselling for adults and children on separation issues; workshops on communication skills and conflict resolution; support groups for children dealing with separation/divorce; and automatic recalculation of child support. The services were provided by two social workers, two mediator/lawyers, an assessment worker/counsellor and a recalculation clerk. Services operated out of a community mental health clinic, offering the opportunity for short-term crisis counselling. This option made the program particularly innovative. Participation was voluntary, unless ordered by the Court, and the services were free to the public.
The Family Justice Registry Program (Rule 5 Project) required all parties to a family court application in four locations in British Columbia to attend a “triage” session with a “triage” Family Justice Counsellor prior to a first appearance in family court. The range of services that constituted the program included a triage assessment, Parenting After Separation courses, family mediation services, limited legal advice, services of a Child Support Officer, enforcement outreach, family case conferences, trial preparation and hearing and judicial adjudication.
Alberta also put a new emphasis on “one-stop shopping” for litigants in the family justice system. The Calgary Courts Centre created a centralized clerk's office for all matters before the family court. Both mediation and Family Law Information Centre services were located on-site, allowing for an ease of access and referral that provided a simplified experience for clients.
Family Law Information and Awareness
Most jurisdictions provide information on family justice services and family law to the public by means of brochures, family law guides, self-help kits, advertisements, handbooks and websites. One of the most innovative initiatives that the Fund supported was British Columbia's website for children and teenagers. This website has received international recognition. It provides children and youth with practical, emotional and legal information on separation and divorce, to better enable them to prepare for and cope with family conflict and changes. The medium used to convey this information is one that children and youth feel comfortable with. British Columbia has continued to assess the interest of other jurisdictions in establishing similar sites specific to their needs and to distribute materials promoting the website.
Other initiatives that the Fund supported in British Columbia was the translation of the text for Kids and Teens into Chinese, and the development of a promotional campaign to increase the French community's awareness of the French version of the website.
Nunavut also received money for the design, development and implementation of a user-friendly website that would provide information on all family-related programs available in Nunavut, as well as maintenance enforcement forms, pamphlets and other resource materials. Funding was also provided to translate these materials into all four of Nunavut's official languages.
Manitoba used the Fund to produce and update a public information booklet called Family Law in Manitoba in both official languages. This booklet has proven to be an invaluable resource to litigants. It contains an overview of family law and the legal system in Manitoba, with the intent of providing a basic understanding of family law and an extensive list of family justice contacts. In addition to being distributed in Manitoba, this booklet has been made available on-line at:
Manitoba also undertook to modify its parent education script and handout material, and to combine the content for the Part B, low- and high-conflict options, into one program; it. In addition, they co-ordinated a workshop in Fredericton for parent-education facilitators; and held orientation sessions for new facilitators if necessary.
New-Brunswick gave public information sessions on the Parent Education Program and on the Child Support Variation Service program (CSVS) at the annual Canadian Bar Association meeting.
The Northwest Territories conducted some outreach by demonstrating the Parent Education Program workshop to social workers and other front-line family law workers. The intention was to give those individuals a better understanding of the program so that they, in turn, could better educate and inform the public about the availability of this service.
The Northwest Territories also produced the final two (in a series of six) brochures designed to inform individuals about legal concepts and court procedures in the area of family law, as well as a series of self-help kits that were designed to enable individuals to navigate themselves through particular court processes, such as obtaining a divorce order. The shortage of lawyers in the Northwest Territories has prevented individuals from obtaining timely court remedies in the area of family law. The self‑help kits were not designed to serve as a substitute for professional legal advice. However, it is expected that they will help individuals to obtain certain legal remedies in a more timely and less expensive manner.
New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia and Yukon have supplemented their Family Law Information Centre services with toll-free lines to respond to enquiries regarding child support guidelines. They also provide basic information to callers about a wide range of family justice topics and about the variety of services available from the provincial government.
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