LAW

Tracing the escape routes of errant spouses

The knotty problem of collecting maintenance payments

Ann Walmsley February 23 1981
LAW

Tracing the escape routes of errant spouses

The knotty problem of collecting maintenance payments

Ann Walmsley February 23 1981

Tracing the escape routes of errant spouses

The knotty problem of collecting maintenance payments

LAW

Ann Walmsley

The 34-year-old East Indian woman was the victim of an unhappy “arranged” marriage. Her husband was irresponsible, but divorce was only the beginning of her problems. A 1976 Supreme Court maintenance order required $400 a month in payment from the husband, but by the fall of 1980, $22,000 in arrears had accumulated. The last time she had seen her exhusband was on a subway in Toronto

four years ago. “He proved to be too clever,” she says. “He sold his property and got lost.” What the woman didn’t realize until three months ago was that enforcement officers could try locating the errant spouse for her.

The case was, she admits, “a problem of ignorance. I didn’t know where to go.” But other women (and some men for that matter) whose spouses have defaulted spend thousands of dollars on private investigators and lawyers trying to find them. In most provinces, only welfare recipients are eligible for government assistance in tracing their husbands.

numbers of women on welfare rolls, has prompted several provinces to implement locate services. Most say the statistics were the persuading factor. In 1976, the Law Reform Commission of Canada found that 75 per cent of all maintenance orders made in Canada were allowed to fall into arrears at one stage or another, and according to one Ontario court untraceable husbands account for about one-third of those arrears.

Traditionally, court officials and so-

Very simply, a pronouncement from the court that maintenance payments are due does not guarantee that the money will be paid. The provinces are learning what banks have known for years—that skip tracing is a crucial service. The cost benefit, to say nothing of the political wisdom of reducing the

cial service enforcement officers have assisted locally to find the absconding spouse. But tracing is not always within the ken of the average enforcement officer. After a cursory driver’s licence search and a few phone calls, he or she may give up. Carl Daniel, supervisor of enforcement at the Toronto Jarvis Street family court, says: “Part of the problem is that people see the court as a real tracing agency and they leave everything up to us. But we just don’t have the facilities.” Even in Manitoba, a highly progressive computerized system that automatically enforces all orders relies on the knowledge of the man’s whereabouts.

Now Alberta and Quebec—formerly havens for runaway spouses—are facing the problem. Quebec has earmarked $1.2 million for operating an enforcement service in 56 localities as an expansion of its existing debtor-tracing facility. The new program, which has been in effect since Jan. 1, makes both welfare and non-welfare recipients eligible, and the collectors of support payments have a mandate to trace to the best of their ability within the province.

The prosperity of Alberta has made it easy for spouses to start a new life away from old responsibilities. As a result, the province has sought an even more effective route than Quebec by hiring a private skip-tracing agency, Equifax. For the past three months, the Alberta ministry of social services has farmed out over 150 default accounts to the firm. Bernard Krewski, director of social services, says his first impressions are that it’s working well: “They’re able to locate relatively easily about 70 per cent of the names we refer.” B.C. is experiencing similar success with its inhouse tracing unit.

Adamant fugitive husbands may, however, simply relocate once they have been found and the process may begin again. “It’s fairly easy to make yourself scarce,” admits Joan Kelly, supervisor of court counselling at the Toronto Jarvis Street court. “And sometimes the system makes them have to go. It may be that she left him and got custody.”

The question all the provinces will eventually have to face is whether or not the husband’s moral obligation to his family exceeds his right to confidentiality. “I think the idea is to develop some kind of balance between the two,” says Holly Harris, an adviser to the federal department of justice. “You have to make sure that support payments are enforced, but the protection of the individual also must be ensured. But don’t hold your breath waiting for early legislation.”

Manitoba is the only province in Canada actively demanding disclosure of federal records for tracing purposes, though Ontario enforcement officers are looking on longingly. Manitoba and Ontario now have reform legislation in place which allows them to force certain provincial government departments to release information, but even that address information may not be as current as UIC records. “We feel interprovincial enforcement is the most serious problem affecting the country in family law,” says Robyn Diamond, a Manitoba family law expert. “Defaulting mainte-

nance payments are on the increase and so is kidnapping.”

Whether it’s the chimera of big government or administrative awkwardness that is scaring off the other provinces, the increasing interprovincial mobility of Canadians adds urgency to the issue. Too many women give up and join the welfare ranks. And the fact that the federal government shares the cost for welfare yet won’t release records is the final Catch-22. Says John Biel, co-ordinator of the parental support program for Ontario: “It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”