Saskatoon StarPhoenix

May 29, 2002

Deadbeat parents tax courts, judge says

Betty Ann Adam
Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Too much public money is spent hauling deadbeat parents into court when they have no money to pay court-ordered child support, a Saskatchewan judge said in a recent judgment.

The province's maintenance enforcement office should write-off court orders for child support when there is no realistic chance of recovering the money, Queen's Bench Justice George Baynton wrote in a May 7 decision out of Swift Current.

"This principle is applied routinely every day to 'bad debt' claims in civil and commercial matters to ensure that the costs of recovery do not exceed the proceeds recovered," Baynton wrote.

However, the province's director of maintenance enforcement, Lionel McNabb, said in an interview Tuesday that most of the almost 150 cases per year that he brings before the court do result in some payment going to the custodial parent.

He added his office doesn't always demand people show up in court to explain themselves.

"We don't always bring them in. We may (if) we think they're working but not making their payments."

Saskatchewan collects more than $30 million per year in maintenance payments, which represents about 80 per cent of the amount ordered by the courts.

The other 20 per cent, or about $6 million goes unpaid, much of it because the parent is on welfare or cannot be located, McNabb said. His office does not pursue people on welfare.

"We have close to the highest collection rate in the country," he said.

He does not have authority to overturn a court order for payment and is required to do his best to get payments, he said.

The case that drew Baynton's comments involved Gregory Scott McPherson is just one example of many enforcement cases in Saskatchewan of expensive and futile rotations through the court system of some parents who have no capacity to pay.

Baynton said it appears McPherson is incapable of maintaining regular employment due to chronic alcoholism and poor health. He is $4,740 in arrears to the mother of one of his children and $16,200 in arrears to the mother of another.

"In the past four years . . . there have been approximately 30 court appearances, numerous orders, incarcerations, show cause hearings, suspension of driving privileges and the like," Baynton wrote.

While little has been accomplished in acquiring payments, much public expense has been incurred, he wrote.

Often parents cannot pay because they cannot maintain employment due to alcoholism, lack of job skills, poor health or the economic consequences of a degraded lifestyle, Baynton wrote.

"The factors are not legitimate moral reasons for non-payment of maintenance but they nonetheless are valid practical reasons for abandoning expensive court-related enforcement proceedings conducted at public expense in cases where there is no realistic chance of recovery," he wrote.

Baynton also noted that having a parent's driver's licence suspended for non-payment can prevent the person from getting a job so they can make the payments.

McNabb said that if a person whose licence was suspended phoned and said he had a job, the suspension could be lifted in two hours.

The suspension is an effective tool in prying payments from truck drivers, taxi drivers and others who earn a living behind the wheel, he said.

Baynton said maintenance enforcement lawyers should not repeatedly adjourn such cases, saying they have a role in assessing the likelihood of success in obtaining payment and to seek a solution "that will minimize the number of court applications and appearances."

Judges do get frustrated, but some people who give judges the impression they are destitute then leave the hearing in a new car, McNabb said.

© Copyright  2002 Saskatoon StarPhoenix