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TORONTO SUN - March 23, 2000

Justice isn't just blind

By MARIANNE MEED WARD

As emotional arguments go, it's hard to beat suicide. You risk appearing cold and uncaring if you refute someone using the Suicide Factor in an argument.

Well, get your arrows ready to pierce my hardened little heart, because I'm about to try.

Item: A B.C. man kills himself after being ordered to pay twice the amount of his monthly income in spousal and child support payments. Ergo, courts are biased against men; the system needs reforming to prevent more deaths.

The Parent Child Advocacy Coalition has accused Canada's legal system of "murder(ing) another father" and is calling for a public inquiry into 34-year-old Darrin White's suicide. Meanwhile, the Men's Education Support Association Web site lists White along with 24 other men (one Canadian, the rest mostly British) who have allegedly taken their lives over support orders.

Emotional stuff, like I said.

The system may well need reforming, but that should be decided on its own merits, not on the basis of the Suicide Factor. (People kill themselves for lots of reasons; and lots of people with huge support orders don't.)

So let's look at facts.

According to the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth released in 1999, mothers have sole custody 81% of the time, fathers only 7%. In joint custody arrangements, two-thirds of children live with their moms.

Meanwhile, according to the 1999 Survey on Child Support Awards, the father pays support 94% of the time.

Clearly, courts favour the mother with custody and the father with financial support. This needs reform.

Now to White's case.

He was ordered to pay $1,071 a month in child support for three children and $1,000 in spousal support. He was already paying $439 a month to support a child from a previous marriage. White's annual income had been assessed at $60,300 as a railroad locomotive engineer.

According to federal child support guidelines, someone with that level of income and three kids is required to pay, surprise, surprise, exactly $1,071. So the judge stuck to the rules. So far, so good.

But at the time of White's death, he was earning only $400 a week, or about $20,800 per year, from disability stress pay.

Could not work

According to his doctor, White was suffering from divorce-related depression, cognitive impairment and an inability to concentrate. The doctor signed an insurance form stating White could not even work part-time.

According to the guidelines, someone with that level of income and three kids is only required to pay $414 per month, excluding spousal support.

To reiterate the math here, White was earning about $950 per month after taxes but owed $2,510 in spousal and child support, not to mention his own living expenses (he'd long since been ordered to leave the family home).

Makes you wonder whether justice is mathematically challenged, as well as blind.

The federal guidelines allow for adjustments in support orders based on "undue hardship." Such circumstances might include: large debts incurred to support the family prior to separation, or to earn a living; high expenses in relation to visiting a child; or a legal duty to support any other person. Oddly, "change in employment income" doesn't figure in.

Elsewhere, though, the guidelines allow a variation in support orders for "any change in circumstances."

Clearly, White's circumstances had changed.

The judge could have adjusted his payments but he refused, concluding that the change in income was "temporary." Perhaps, but intact families are not spared the fluctuations in family income caused by illness or other reasons.

Why should kids of divorced parents be spared?

Or maybe the judge thought White was simply pretending to be mentally disabled. Another section in the guidelines gives a judge power to "impute" an annual income if he thinks the spouse is "intentionally underemployed or unemployed."

But even here there are exceptions made for underemployment caused by, among other things, "the health needs of the spouse." Arguably, White fit the exception.

Though the guidelines bring some welcome standardization to family court decisions, there's room for improvement - not because we think it will prevent suicide (White was clearly troubled by more than just support payments) but because it makes sense.

Marianne Meed Ward, a freelance writer with an interest in social and ethical issues, appears Mondays. Her e-mail is:pward@interlog.com