This family law case is about access to child support. The case clarified the situations in which a court can reduce a payor’s historical child support obligation or child support debt.
The parties were married in 1983 and divorced in 1996. They had two children together. After the divorce, the children lived with their mother, and the father was ordered to pay the mother child support under the Divorce Act. The father’s child support obligation ended in 2012, when the children became adults. Between 1998 and 2016, the father made no voluntary child support payments, and the mother only received limited amounts of money through enforcement actions. As a result, in 2016, the father owed the mother over $170,000 in unpaid child support.
In 2016, the father successfully asked a court to review his income over a 16-year period and reduce his child support debt to $41,642. The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned that decision by applying the legal principle that courts should generally avoid turning back the clock on historical child support obligations more than four years from the date of the court application. The father appealed the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.
West Coast LEAF’s Involvement
West Coast LEAF jointly intervened with LEAF National to highlight the importance of child support law to the economic security of single-mother and other lone-parent families, as well as propose a new test for reductions to historical child support obligations that would encourage responsible child support payment. Child support recipients are too often not paid the child support they are owed because of power dynamics and information imbalances with child support payors, as well as barriers to accessing justice through the legal system. In particular, it is difficult for child support recipients to enforce their rights when the payor fails to disclose their income or lies about it. The estimated $3.7 billion of child support debt in Canada demonstrates that the child support system is not adequately serving the needs of single-mother and other lone-parent families.
West Coast LEAF and LEAF National proposed a test for reductions to historical child support obligations that would make any reduction dependent on the payor’s full and frank disclosure of their income information. Further, it would limit courts from turning back the clock on historical child support obligations more than four years from the date of the court application.
The Supreme Court of Canada heard the appeal on November 4, 2020 and released its decision on June 4, 2021.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada largely adopted West Coast LEAF and LEAF National’s proposed test for reductions to historical child support obligations, and extended the test’s application to retroactive reductions to child support debt.