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September 3, 2001

Father battles paying support to student, 19

Judge's ruling seen as deliberate challenge to law

Chris Cobb, Southam News
National Post

OTTAWA - An Edmonton-area father goes to court tomorrow as part of a challenge to provincial and federal family law he says has ramifications for all Canadian parents and should be resolved by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The father and his lawyers will ask Alberta Court of Queen's bench Justice Jack Watson to suspend his recent ruling that the father must financially support his 19-year-old daughter through university.

In what is widely interpreted as a deliberate attempt to force government to clarify the law, Watson ruled that students are destitute because they cannot go to school and work at the same time. The father is asking that the ruling be suspended while he challenges it in the Alberta Court of Appeal.

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, the 50-year-old father said if Watson's ruling stands, it could mean all parents of students could be faced with kids refusing to work part-time and demanding money to go to school. Nor does the ruling place any age limit on a student.

"I'm 50," he said, "but would that stop me going to university and demanding that my elderly parents pay. It sounds ridiculous but that is where we're at."

The father cannot be identified because the case involving his daughter began when she was a minor.

Advocates of changes to Canada's Divorce Act have long insisted that the law discriminates against divorced, non-custodial parents because courts can order them to finance their children's' post-secondary education.

But unlike parents of intact families, non-custodial parents have no right to say how university or college money is spent, or whether it might be tied to performance in school or a willingness on the part of the child to contribute through part-time work.

The Edmonton father was not married to his daughter's mother but Watson ruled that irrelevant, effectively saying that all children, whether born in or out of wedlock, or of divorced or intact parents must be treated equally.

The father, now living alone on a disability pension, has two grown sons from an early marriage and a 16-year-old daughter from a another relationship. He says he saw his sons every weekend and took them on vacations while they were growing and now has a good relationship with both. He has not seen his 19-year-old daughter for more than two years, or his 16-year-old for 10 years.

"I have unrestricted visitation under the custody arrangement [for the 16-year-old]," he said, "but when I tried to see her I was told she was always busy. I couldn't afford to take it back to court and I didn't want to drag her through all that. It's a sad situation but I figure I'll see her one day."

The father was paying support for his two girls, plus court-ordered add-ons including $600 a month for skating lessons, $80 for music lessons and $150 a month for cheerleading lessons. These were eventually overturned by another judge.

"I made those payments for four years," he said. "At the rate I was paying I should -- according to federal guidelines -- have been earning $142,000 yet I was only making $62,000. Life was rough for those years. My parents helped, my friends helped out, it was a challenge just to keep on."

When he was forced onto disability two years ago, he asked the court for a reduction in the payments he was making to his daughters. It took eight months to get through the system but that's when the second judge ruled he didn't have to pay for the skating, cheerleading and other lessons.

The father's current appeal began when his daughter's mother returned to court for continued support after the daughter turned 18 -- money, he claims, that was not used for his daughter's education.

"Most parents want to help their children," he said, "and I'm no exception."

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