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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
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
Why should kids of divorced parents be
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
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