Nova Scotia

Maintenance enforcement scofflaws not facing court action, review finds

​A committee charged with reviewing Nova Scotia's child and spousal support program is recommending changes to improve the service.

Deadbeats in N.S. owe their children or former partners nearly $65 million, CBC investigation found

A committee tasked with reviewing Nova Scotia's maintenance enforcement program has recommended a series of changes to the system. (Getty )

A review of Nova Scotia child and spousal support program is recommending the province come down harder on parents who are in arrears or refuse to pay what they have been ordered to.

That includes taking so-called "deadbeat" parents to court more often when there are payment problems.

"We're going to use every one of the enforcement tools we currently have available and we're looking at more tools, more things that we can do so we are going to be going after those arrears and we're going to bring them down," said Nova Scotia Justice Minister Diana Whalen. 

There is now a three-person investigative unit attached to the program which is actively seeking out deadbeat parents.

"I think it's going to have a tremendous impact on finding people who are trying to completely avoid their obligations. It's a small unit but if we need more, we will look at that."

The minister also said the move to close regional maintenance enforcement offices and open a new central office in New Waterford hurt the program.

"I'm frustrated too, that two years ago, that a program which was already struggling to meet the needs of women and children was brought to its knees by the decision to consolidate the office in one location," said Whalen.

"There was a 70 per cent turnover of staff as a result, which had a significant impact on our ability to help our clients women and children."

'Great frustration' with enforcement of court orders

The governing Liberals have agreed to make all 27 changes recommended by the review committee. The Justice Department says that as of July, total arrears were approximately $61.8 million, and 72 per cent of that was owed by just 20 per cent of "delinquent payors."

The review committee urged the province to go to court more often as a way to force delinquent parents to pay up.

The group found the courts are rarely used in this province as a way to ensure compliance.

In fact over a three year period, "court action" was taken only three times in Nova Scotia. By contrast, case workers in New Brunswick used the court system there a total of 478 times in 2013-14 alone.

The review committee noted, "While court enforcement may not be the first 'tool' to be employed in any case, it is an important tool that should be utilized in appropriate circumstances."

The committee found "great frustration" with enforcement of court orders amongst those who are due support.

18-month timeline

The committee is also recommending staff in the Maintenance Enforcement division work more closely with the Registrar of Motor Vehicles "to implement a protocol for refusing to renew licenses and permits when a payer is in persistent arrears."

There are also problems associated with trying to find people when many move, sometimes to another province. The review committee recommends requiring more personal information such as "date of birth, mother's maiden name etc. to assist with enforcement action."

The committee is hoping all 27 of is recommendations can be implemented within 18 months — the government is promising to do it within two years.

"What needs to be done first? They all need to be done first. I think the maintenance enforcement, the improvements will really add some security to a lot of women's lives and it's a good place to start," said ​Georgia Barnwell, coordinator of Women's Centres Connect​! — a women's rights advocacy group.

The group is also calling on the province to complete a review of these changes to ensure they are having the necessary effect on improving the program.

The review included input from department staff, focus groups of recipients, a 270 person online survey and consultation with lawyers.

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