Federal Funding of Provincial and Territorial Child Support, Support Enforcement and Child Custody and Access Projects
The child support amounts set out in agreements and orders can be modified as the personal and financial circumstances of separated and divorced parents and their children change. Normally, the procedures followed to vary an order parallel those used to determine the original arrangements—that is, an application must be filed with the court and a judge must issue an order modifying the current arrangement. Several jurisdictions have attempted to simplify the process for all concerned through revised procedures, special pilot projects or both. Some of these innovations will be based on a recalculation procedure made possible by section 25.1 of the Divorce Act.
Under section 25.1, the federal Minister of Justice can enter into an agreement with a province or territory that authorizes 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.” The recalculated child support amount would come into effect within 31 days, unless one of the parents makes an application to have the matter reviewed by the court.
Child Support Variation Procedures
Four jurisdictions have allocated federal resources to support the development, testing and implementation of less onerous and more timely child support variation and recalculation procedures.
- Nunavut Justice has developed and implemented standardized forms, and increased information services and individualized assistance with document preparation, all to make the variation process less burdensome.
- In Nova Scotia, intake assistants assess each case to identify those that would be appropriate for mediation and conciliation services designed to help parents arrive at agreements on recalculation. Any resulting agreement is formalized as a consent order under court rules.
- New Brunswick is exploring an administrative hearing mechanism to deal with child support variations. Under the proposed procedure, a hearing officer would be able to compel parents to appear at the hearing and disclose information.
- Saskatchewan plans to develop a dispute resolution service to assist low-income clients of the Maintenance Enforcement Office to vary or recalculate their child support orders.
Three provinces have developed and are implementing projects that will handle child support variation applications using procedures of the kind envisioned by section 25.1 of the Divorce Act.
- Manitoba’s Family Law Branch is studying the feasibility of a pilot project that will provide for the administrative recalculation of support amounts by a team of legal and administrative officers.
- British Columbia’s Ministry of Attorney General is establishing a pilot project in Kelowna that offers a comprehensive child support service. The service will be offered to parents seeking to establish or vary an original child support order. An important element of this extra service will be links with the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program, the Parenting After Separation program, Debtor’s Assistance, legal advice lawyers and the courts.
- Newfoundland has established Family Justice Services Western, a partnership with a local community health organization to deliver education, mediation and counselling services to children and families with issues related to custody, child support, access and spousal support.
Child Support Calculation Software
Software developers have designed applications that do the calculation of basic support payments under child support guidelines and all provinces and territories have provided such tools to the judiciary, court staff and others to permit them to make quick and accurate calculations. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have devoted federal funds to purchase a site licence for the software, to train users, and, in some cases, to lease computers.
Provincial and territorial governments established maintenance enforcement programs in the mid-1980s to provide an intermediary service for those paying support and those receiving support payments. In most provinces, their primary function is to receive payments from debtors and forward them to the creditor once the funds have been cleared through a trust account. The greater challenge for enforcement programs arises when debtors fail to make payments in a timely fashion or at all. When this happens, the programs attempt to trace and locate the individuals who have defaulted and to obtain the money that is due. In Quebec, the maintenance enforcement program (which is located within Revenu Québec) advances the amount of the periodic payment to any creditor on income assistance. To this end, legislatures have given maintenance enforcement programs the authority to recover the support owing from assets, by garnisheeing income and restricting access to privileges such as motor vehicle licences. In 1996, the federal government amended the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act (FOAEA) and other statutes to introduce measures such as licence suspension procedures to help encourage compliance with child support agreements and orders. In addition, the Department of Justice Canada has supported national planning and research work with the provincial and territorial governments to identify and implement stronger enforcement measures through provincial and territorial laws and programs. This federal-provincial-territorial collaboration has facilitated a range of administrative and operational improvements designed to increase the effectiveness of maintenance enforcement services.
The Department of Justice Canada administers the FOAEA Act through the Family Law Assistance Section in Ottawa. The provincial and territorial maintenance enforcement programs (MEP) are the main users of the three FOAEA services: tracing, interception and licence denial. The tracing service provides MEPs, from federal data banks, with the residential address and employer name and address of individuals who have obligations under a support, access or custody order or agreement. The interception service allows for the garnishment of designated federal monies payable, including income tax refunds, employment insurance benefits, old age security, Canada Pension Plan benefits, interest on regular Canada Savings Bonds and selected Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada programs. Finally, the licence denial service, which was implemented in 1997, processes MEP applications to suspend and deny Canadian passports and federally issued licenses, such as aviation and navigation certificates, for individuals who are in default of family support by at least $3,000 or are three payments in arrears.
In order to increase the efficiency of its service, the FOAEA program established an information management system and procedures that permit provincial and territorial MEP staff to request and obtain FOAEA services via the Internet. The design and implementation of this system required that each MEP develop and implement information management and communications solutions of its own to automate file and data exchange with the FOAEA system. Typically, implementation of such a solution called for changes in service delivery procedures, system development and design, acquisition of equipment and information management and security software, and staff training.
All the provinces and territories, save Manitoba and Nunavut, allocated federal funding resources to assist with this work.
National Maintenance Enforcement Survey
As part of the Child Support Initiative, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics launched the National Maintenance Enforcement Survey to collect and publish national information about support compliance and enforcement. The Centre, in addition to developing a centralized data processing and reporting system, has contracted with the provinces and territories to build interfaces to extract maintenance enforcement data from their databases. Governments will use such information for policy and program development, research and evaluation. The academic community, non-governmental organizations and the general public will also find it useful. This aggregate survey collects information about cases in maintenance enforcement programs, describing the following:
- the compliance and arrears status of payors, according to the amount due;
- the amounts of money and proportions received;
- for cases in arrears, the percentage of dollars due that have been received and the time since the last payment;
- the number of cases in which the recipient has payments assigned to social assistance;
- the types of enforcement activities employed, by volume;
- information about default hearings;
- the people involved (e.g. median age, number of children and sex);
- the proportion of cases involving reciprocal maintenance enforcement; and
- the authority (Divorce Act or provincial or territorial statute) under which the support order was made.
British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, New Brunswick and Alberta each used Department of Justice Canada funds to design and implement system changes to meet the Centre’s requirements.
Maintenance Enforcement System Development
Provincial and territorial maintenance enforcement programs must handle thousands of transactions daily, work that is dependant on effective automated information and financial management systems. As laws, procedures and service standards change, these systems must be updated, upgraded or, in some cases, replaced. Since 1997, the federal government has supported this critical work in all provinces and territories.
The following are samples of work done in each jurisdiction that illustrate the kinds of information systems development efforts that were needed to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of maintenance enforcement programs.
Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Saskatchewan evaluated and implemented electronic banking procedures and applications. Typically, these measures allow for pre-authorized payment arrangements for debtors and direct deposits to creditors’ accounts that reduce collection costs and minimize delays in payments to creditors.
British Columbia’s work in this area illustrates the effort required to develop and implement electronic banking procedures. In 1997-1999, the province hired a consultant to assess the feasibility of automating transactions with the province’s Treasury Branch to allow for the use of automatic bank withdrawal from payors’ accounts, coded invoices for payors through selected institutions, direct deposit to recipients’ accounts, electronic fund transfers from attachees, and direct payment of maintenance through protected services. The review and development process, which continued in 2000‑2001, included implementing the direct deposit arrangements for payments to recipients and online and telephone banking systems to benefit payors.
Improved Collection Mechanisms
Several jurisdictions have allocated federal funding to support the design and implementation of procedures and programs to improve the ability of maintenance enforcement programs to locate debtors and collect arrears.
New Enforcement Measures
As a result of the 1997 amendments to the FOAEA Act, maintenance enforcement programs can now apply to have passports and certain federal licences withdrawn or denied when the holder or applicant is more than three months or $3,000 in arrears on support payments. The expectation is that the defaulter’s inability to obtain these privileges will motivate greater compliance. With the same objectives in mind, provincial and territorial authorities have considered, and in many cases implemented, similar enforcement measures affecting licences and privileges governed by provincial law. In a number of cases, provinces have allocated federal resources to support their study and/or implementation of such strategies.
Meeting Service Demands
Alberta, Quebec and New Brunswick each allocated federal resources to meet increased demands for services associated with the rise in the number of child support variations following implementation of child support guidelines.
Responding to Client Enquiries
Maintenance enforcement programs must deal with high volumes of calls from paying and receiving parents inquiring about the status of their accounts. In order to address this continuing demand for individual information, several of the programs have introduced automated telephone systems, frequently referred to as integrated voice response (IVR) systems. The IVR services operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to give clients access to case-specific enforcement status and payment information, as well as information about enforcement legislation and other related matters. Typically, clients must register for the service and obtain a PIN number to ensure the security of personal information on the automated line. During office hours, clients who cannot obtain the information they seek through the automated service can have their calls forwarded to enforcement staff or leave a detailed message asking for staff assistance.
Prince Edward Island, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, Alberta and British Columbia used federal resources to design, install and maintain their IVR systems. The specific work ranged from hardware installation to the preparation of the scripts for the audio recordings that provide callers with general public information about enforcement laws and procedures. New Brunswick is planning on using federal funds to design, install and/or maintain their IVR system and is targeting implementation for April 1, 2002.
In September 2000, Alberta implemented a service to give MEP clients access to their account information via the Internet. Alberta’s MEP Accounts Online project, which was supported by federal funding, is the first of its kind in Canada. It allows both creditors and debtors to access current account status (the last four payments), request a statement, report their change of address, and send an e-mail inquiry or comment. The system complements existing services provided by collection officers and the Integrated Voice Response Telephone System. Prince Edward Island is designing a similar system.
Improving Client Services
Provincial and territorial MEPs allocated federal resources to projects designed to evaluate and enhance client services.
Staff Training and Support
British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec used federal funds for staff training and related activities in addition to the training associated with specific initiatives such as new enforcement measures and the implementation of information system changes. British Columbia, for example, developed guidelines to assist staff involved in negotiating voluntary payments. Alberta published a newsletter to keep agency staff informed of procedural and policy changes as new procedures were implemented in 1997-1998 and, in 1999-2000, hired a senior program advisor whose responsibilities included designing and managing enhanced training for enforcement personnel. In 2000-2001, Ontario conducted a number of orientation sessions for new staff, and planned and prepared an upcoming course called Dealing with Difficult Clients for all Family Responsibility Office staff. Quebec, in order to improve the delivery of work-related information to staff and management, developed an Intranet that gives maintenance enforcement program staff ready access to up-to-date user guides, procedures manuals, forms and the other material they require to perform their duties.
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