Toronto Star

September 15, 1999

Court considers support rules for rich

Is $10,000 a month too much in child support?

By Valerie Lawton
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - At the heart of a case to be decided by Canada's top court this week are two sisters who grew up in two worlds: a no-frills, week-day life with mom and weekends of breathtaking luxury with dad.

Baker vs. Francis is also a battle over how Canada's child support guidelines apply to the very rich. How much child support is too much? Is any amount too much?

The case the Supreme Court of Canada is set to decide on tomorrow involves divorced Toronto couple Monica Francis and Thomas Baker.

She is a high school teacher who lives in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, an area she describes as ``high crime.'' He's a multi-millionaire lawyer-turned-businessman with a $5-million Bridle Path mansion.

The couple married in 1979 and had two daughters, now aged 15 and 14. Baker left the home five days after his youngest daughter's birth.

In the years after the split, Baker became fabulously wealthy, while Francis was forced to return to work three months after her second daughter's birth to support her children. She described a life of struggle as a single parent.

Court heard how outings with Francis, who had custody, meant mini-golf, movies and Wonderland. Baker, meanwhile, welcomed the girls into his 12,000-square-foot home on weekends. They enjoyed expensive restaurants and ski vacations at his Whistler chalet.

Besides monthly child support payments, Baker also pays for the girls' private-school tuition, a security service to chauffeur them to and from school, tutoring, their clothes and computer equipment.

``This has been a remarkably generous, good, decent father to these children,'' said his lawyer, Stephen Grant. ``He's provided for years for all their material comforts, so to portray him as anything else is ridiculous.''

Francis' lawyer, Nicole Tellier, said yesterday she didn't want to talk about the case until after the decision is released.

When the couple separated in 1985, Francis ignored the advice of her lawyer and signed an agreement that gave her $30,000 from the sale of their house, a car and $2,500 a month in support.

She said she'd been experiencing great difficulty in her personal life at that time.

Not long after the couple officially divorced, Francis began proceedings to get the child-support payments increased. It took nine years for the case to get to trial because of numerous pre-trial motions.

At the point of the 1997 trial, Francis was earning $63,000 annually, while Baker, who was president of Seven-Up Canada and Pathfinder Beverages before buying a chain of fast-food restaurants in Toronto, was making almost $1 million a year and had a net worth of $78 million. (In 1996, Baker was charged in connection with an $18-million money laundering and tax evasion case arising out of his takeovers of Seven-Up and other companies. He also faces ongoing disciplinary proceedings by the Law Society of Upper Canada.)

The trial judge ordered Baker to pay a lump sum of $500,000, plus $10,000 a month in support.

He did pay the $500,000, but Francis said yesterday she wasn't able to use it to move to a better neighbourhood as she'd like to do. ``It's all gone to legal bills,'' she said when reached at home.

Baker appealed to Ontario's Court of Appeal for lower child support payments, but his bid was dismissed there.

Canada's child-support rules set out precise obligations that vary by province and the number of children involved.

In the past, support payments were based on children's needs and ability to pay. A 1997 change was aimed at helping parents set up fair and consistent arrangements and lower divorcing parents' legal costs. This is the first time the Supreme Court has looked at the new guidelines.

Baker's key argument during an April hearing focused on how a section of the support-payment rules for people earning over $150,000 should be interpreted. The rules say if the prescribed amount is ``inappropriate,'' the judge can order another amount. Lower courts took that to mean the payment was inadequate.

Baker, however, argues that $10,000 a month is excessive and therefore inappropriate.

``Even allowing for the luxuries some wealthy families choose to indulge, it is inconceivable, and one might say irresponsible, for parents to spend such large amounts on their children,'' his lawyer said in a document presented in court.

``The real effect is to transfer wealth to the children or the recipient spouse, an object that Parliament clearly never intended.''

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