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Saturday, September 11, 1999Quebec mother threatened with jail over $25,000 unpaid support
MONTREAL - A mother from Quebec who faced a bill of $25,000 for outstanding child support payments was told she faced five months in jail if she failed to settle the arrears.
Linh Khan Nguyen finally met the financial demands but has now filed a court motion seeking to be reimbursed almost the entire amount.
Dr. Nguyen wants to reclaim about $23,000 by having her child-support payments to her two sons reduced from $193 to $15 a week, retroactive to more than two years ago.
Her lawyer, Andre Legault, said yesterday that his client now earns substantially less than the net annual income of $55,700 she was making at the time of her divorce from her husband, Ian Galbraith, in July, 1997.
While Mr. Legault claims his client is now working as a secretary in her sister's dental clinic, her former husband's lawyer maintains she is still a practising dentist.
Dr. Nguyen, 37, declared bankruptcy one month after her divorce.
Mr. Galbraith's lawyer, Andrew Heft, said that no payments were made under the terms of the divorce agreement, although Dr. Nguyen proposed paying $15 a week beginning last December. That offer was declined.
"This demonstrates that the threat of a jail sentence is often the only way to collect support from a stubborn debtor, as Dr. Nguyen did in fact make payment when faced with an arrest warrant and five months in jail," Mr. Heft said.
But to Mr. Legault, the "very severe" threat of such a sentence is akin to "debtor's prison."
"She borrowed to pay [support] and avoid going to jail," he said.
Since complying with the court order, which was made in July, for back payments to be paid, Dr. Nguyen has fallen into arrears again, Mr. Heft said.
Mr. Heft partly blamed the provincial law that gives Revenue Quebec the responsibility of recovering child-support payments for allowing Dr. Nguyen to go so long without paying.
"The present case emphasizes the futility, when dealing with self-employed debtors who have control over their income, of giving government bureaucrats the exclusive power to direct the enforcement of periodic support judgments," Mr. Heft said.
Marie-Josee Peloquin, the provincial ombudsman's lawyer who handled a complaint by Mr. Galbraith, said Revenue Quebec "did absolutely nothing" for the complainant.
"He was assigned an agent, but nothing was done because [Dr. Nguyen] had declared bankruptcy."
"I've rarely seen a case like this," Ms. Peloquin added. "It's unbelievable."
Linda Hammerschmid, a family lawyer, said yesterday that she is "sure this happens a lot more than is publicized, and it's time it came to light."
Manon Tremblay, a spokeswoman for the revenue department, said in a telephone interview from Quebec City yesterday that the nearly four-year-old system of collecting from delinquent parents "is going relatively well considering the number of cases."
Ms. Tremblay said that of the 82,400 cases handled this year, 4%, or 3,500, involve mothers ordered to pay child support.
The government has the power to seize property and sell it, as well as to collect money from a delinquent parent's pension.
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