National Post

March 30, 2002

Family Law Thuggery

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD
National Post

You could fill your boots with what I don't know about the civil side of the courts.

Generally speaking, if no one has been bludgeoned, starved, beaten, assaulted, strangled or dismembered, I am disinclined to sit for weeks upon hard benches and watch lawyers at their wordy work.

But with this disclaimer, it seems to me there is precious little to celebrate in the decision out of the Ontario Court of Appeal last week whereby a man known as Mr. R was ordered to pay $36,0001 a month in child support, the biggest such, award in Canada.

Mr. R had hardly been shirking his obligations, and was acknowledged, going into this thing, to be such a good parent he had been early on awarded joint custody of the youngsters, whom he sees three weekends out of four during the school year, and half of each summer.

He also appears to be a rather sensible, even admirable, fellow: A high-level commissioned salesman and vice-president for a company called MFP Financial Services Ltd, his income has steadily soared (though not always in a straight line), but Mr and Mrs. R lived relatively modestly and certainly unextravagantly throughout their eight-year marriage, largely at his behest.


GOOD PARENTING DOESN'T MEAN THROWING MONEY AT YOUR CHILDREN

As Mrs. R told the original trial judge (it is unfair of me to imbue her voice here, with a whine, but I cannot help but do it), Mr. R, presumably ever aware that all salesmen, even high-faluting ones, have lean years, never wanted the family to assume his monstrous earnings would continue and live stupidly high on the hog.

And the judge found that Mr R was, in this, prudent but not in the least punitive, and also agreed with him that "good parenting does not involve throwing money at your children."

In any case, as per a decision by that first judge, Mr. R. was paying $16,000 a month in basic support costs for his four youngsters and an additional $4,000 a month for their private schools when Mrs. R. appealed.

In the course of the litigation, she had prepared three budgets, the last of which she was inspired to draw up just before trial, when she learned that Mr. R's income had recently doubled from just over $2-million in 1997 to more than $4 million in 1999. She boldly admitted sitting down and revising all her estimates, quite nakedly aiming to match her figures to the in the federal government's guidelines established five years ago.

In essence, she tailored the proposed expenses precisely to the increase in Mr. R's income.

This week, that unashamed exercise in greed -- that Mrs. R did it in the name of the kiddies does not elevate it a whit in my books -- was rewarded by the Court of Appeal, which socked it to Mr. R by increasing by five times the amount of discretionary expenses he must pay for his children each month.

Instead of $4,000, he has been ordered to pay $20,000, which, as Mrs. R. thoughtfully broke it down in her third budget, was meant to cover various "options" such as a Muskoka cottage, a ski club membership, a home in Florida -- oh, and two horses and their boarding fees. (Here, I'm afraid I hear the children, undoubtedly lovely as children are, galloping in on their ponies and crying, in the imitable voice of a friend of mine who despairs of the privileged set, "Raise the gate, Mommy! Raise the gate!")

The case won front-page attention across the country and fairly so. But two aspects, of the story received scant mention.

One is a remark from the trial judge, Mr. Justice John Cavarzan of the Ontario Superior Court, who said the case was complicated by assault charges laid against Mr. R. in 1998 by his ex-wife. The judge who heard those charges and acquitted Mr. R., Judge Cavarzan said, had noted that he often felt as though he were refereeing a family-law dispute.

I read this as the criminal judge's thinly veiled way of saying he suspected Mrs. R, has been playing hardball, and that perhaps she had been using, as some women do when they are frustrated by the family courts, a criminal charge to batter her husband into seeing the light.

The second item of interest is that the appeal court did not give Mrs. R everything she was seeking purportedly on behalf of the children -- the panel pared down her suggested list of options, worth $53,000 a month, and found, for instance, the demand for a Florida residence was excessive, and the horses appear to have been lost in the shuffle. Slightly more satisfying the court flatly turned down her demand for a doubling of her own $5,000 a month in spousal support. As the appeal panel noted, with her share of the proceeds from the sale of the matrimonial home, Mrs. R. purchased a $359,000 house, and that, the court found, provides her "with a substantial base to generate investment income."

She had been arguing that the trial judge had failed to take into account the economic disadvantage she suffered because of the marriage.

Economic disadvantage? A substantial base for investment income? Good grief.

Mrs. R once did clerical work at McMaster University. She quit that job, in the prime of what I imagine she now warmly remembers as her bright, bright career just before the wedding. She was 28 at the time of the original trial two summers ago, which would make her now all of 30 or approaching it. The children are by my reckoning now 6, 7, 9 and 11; they are not underfoot all day, but rather in school

Perhaps in the future if Mrs. R finds herself in need of more money, she will be encouraged to do what her former husband has done for years -- work for it My hunch, alas, is that this dame is a stranger to honest labour, and will instead opt for the tried-and-true route that served her so well last week, and will simply sit down and revise -- some would say pluck from the air -- the children's expenses upward again. No surprise to me, really, that all in all, I prefer the rather more straightforward thuggery of the criminal side.

National Post Christie Blatchford can be contacted at cblatchford@nationalpost.com

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