Edmonton Journal

Friday 24 August 2001

Tuition ruling forces parents to pay?

Lawyers foresee rash of cases after judge rules dad must foot college costs

Charles Rusnell, Journal Staff Writer
The Edmonton Journal



Shaughn Butts, The Journal, File
Court of Queen's Bench Justice Jack Watson


An Alberta court ruling that orders a father to support his adult daughter through university could open the floodgates for university students to sue their parents for financial support, local lawyers say.

And University of Alberta law professor Leonard Pollock said the ruling could mean all children planning to attend university can turn to their parents for financial support.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Jack Watson ruled that a father must financially support his daughter through university because students are "unable to work" and go to school at the same time.

In a judgment released Aug. 9, Watson wrote that young Albertans can't "readily perform" two or more full-time burdensome and difficult tasks simultaneously.

The daughter, P.T., now 19, can't be named because she was a minor when the case began.

Watson's ruling stems from a case in which P.T. sought financial support while in university. The young woman was born out of wedlock.

The couple never married but the father paid child support until P.T. turned 18, at which time he was no longer legally obliged.

Both Steven Mandziuk, P.T.'s lawyer, and Brenda Stothert-Kennedy, the father's lawyer, believe the ruling, if it stands, could "open the floodgates" for lawsuits from students against their parents.

The father is appealing the ruling to the Alberta Court of Appeal.

"This decision is huge," Mandziuk said. "(Watson) essentially said that a university student who is dependent on a parent can apply (through the courts) for financial support. And I see no reason why this wouldn't apply to the children of married or unmarried parents."

Stothert-Kennedy said the ruling effectively gives children from all family situations the right to sue their parents for support.

"This opens a massive floodgate," she said. "If parents for whatever reason don't want to pay for their children's education, their children can turn around and sue them."

Pollock said Watson has tried to make all children equitable under the law.

"Which is laudable, but the effect (of Watson's ruling) is that all children can now turn to their parents for support if they attend university," Pollock said.

Watson found that because students can't work while attending university, they are therefore "destitute."

His ruling is based on his interpretation of the provincial Maintenance Order Act. The act states that, "The husband, wife, father, mother and children of ... any other destitute person who is not able to work shall provide maintenance, including adequate food, clothing, medical aid and lodging for that person."

Pollock said he believes Watson has too broadly interpreted the meaning of destitute in the act.

"He stretched destitute too far," Pollock said. "He has interpreted it as meaning she can't work when, of course, she can work. It's just that she has chosen to attend university."

Pollock said Watson is a highly respected judge. He suspects Watson produced the controversial ruling so that a higher court would eventually be forced to deal with the issue, since the government of Alberta has in the past been reluctant to legislate family law guidelines which reflect the reality of modern families.

Under the federal Divorce Act, estranged parents -- mostly men -- have for years been required to financially support children pursuing post-secondary education. Advocacy groups for divorced men have long complained this is discriminatory. Parents who aren't divorced have no legal obligation to help pay for the post-secondary education of their adult children.

Edmonton family law lawyer Marla Miller believes the ruling could inadvertently eliminate this perceived discrimination.

"I think this ruling may open the door for children from intact families to sue their parents for support while they go to university," said Miller, past chairwoman of the North Alberta Family Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association.

"And so if that is true, those people who are arguing that the Divorce Act is unfair would have their argument shot out of the water because they would be in exactly the same situation as parents who are married."

WHAT THE RULING SAID

"I conclude that even talented young Albertans cannot readily perform two or more full-time burdensome and difficult tasks simultaneously."

"There are a plethora of words given as having the same meaning as 'destitute,' some characterizing acute desperation, others not. It has also been defined as equivalent to 'needy' and 'poor' and 'impoverished.' I cannot see as involving a profound conceptual difference from the situation of a child unable to withdraw and obtain necessaries for herself."

Ran with factbox "What the Ruling Said" which has been appended.

2001 CanWest Interactive