A lower court was correct in findinga wealthy plastic surgeon in contempt of court andgivinghim a jail sentence after he left the country andstopped payingsupport to his ex-wife Leaka and their children, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday.
In its 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the power ofa lower court judge to findDr. Kenneth Dickie in contempt of court and sentence him to 45 days in jail.
Leaka Dickie, who now lives in St. Albert, Alta., with the three grown children,said Friday the ruling is great news. Even though it may not be enforced because her ex-husband lives in the Bahamas, it is important for other women, she said.
"It's a great moral victory for us.
"I think it will maybe turn pages in the matrimonial law and maybe it will set precedents for other women who are going through this devastating experience we've gone through."
Theruling was also hailed by the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, which had intervenor status in the top court.
'It sends a message that men can be held accountable.' —Fiona Sampson, Women's Legal Education and Action Fund
"We are pleased with the decision and we think it will make a significant difference to women's access to equal treatment in the family justice system," Fiona Sampson, LEAF director of litigation, told CBC News Online.
Dickie, a plastic surgeon who practised in Sarnia, Ont., moved to the Bahamas in 2002 to be with his new wife and their two children, and immediately stopped paying child and spousal support.
According to his lawyer, Dickie paid support for 10 years after he separated from Leaka Dickie in 1991, but stopped when he ran out of money.
His ex-wife went to court when the couple'sfirst support agreement expired in 2001.
Leaka Dickiereceived an interim judgment, from the Ontario Superior Court,that was never made final. It hadawarded her monthly payments of $9,000 in child support and $2,500 in spousal support.
She obtained another judgment from Ontario Superior Court that ordered her ex-husband to provide her with a $150,000 letter of credit and provide another $100,000as security to cover her potential court costs.
Operates business in Bahamas
In 2004, Kenneth Dickie returned to Canada for a hearing and was found in contempt of court for failing to comply with a court order for the letter of credit.
He served 45 days in jail and returned to the Bahamas, where he operates the Bahamas Institute of Plastic Surgery. Canadian court orders cannot be enforced there.
The Ontario Court of Appeal, in a decisiona year ago, ruled the Ontario Superior Court judge did not have the power to find Dickie in contempt of court and jail him.
Dickie has not provided the letter of credit and the security money, and it is not known whether his ex-wifewill be able tocollect.
Lawyers for his ex-wife had argued that courts need powers that can be enforced to make spouses responsible for their financial obligations to their children and former spouses.
Sampson said the Supreme Court ruling is considered important because it could set a precedent for many other family law cases.
"It's a huge victory. It sends a message that men can be held accountable. It's significant because it will have an impact on the ability of women to resolve the problem of men who abuse the family court system," she said.
"It's important for us to see Ms. Dickie succeed because there will be a trickle down effect to other women in more economically disadvantaged situations."
Father must pay legal costs
Sampson said the ruling will enable courts to use contempt of court proceedings against parents who ignore court orders to pay support, and it has legitimized the use of contempt of court and jail sentences in such cases.
She said when families break down, many women and children left behind by departing husbands end up struggling financially. The top court recognized that divorce contributes to the "feminization of poverty," she added.
Thecourt also ruled that legal costs incurred by Leaka Dickie must be covered by her ex-husband.
Her lawyer told CBC News that the rulingis worthhundreds of thousands of dollars if the ex-husband could be forced to pay.