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What impact will the pandemic have on child support?

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Canadians from coast to coast, including the GTA’s court systems. Parents who depend on child support, are being warned that the outbreak will have some impact on the flow of payments.

The first of the month came and went, but Lynn Kaplan, who is a certified divorce doula, didn’t receive her child support payment for April, and she fears she won’t be for a while.

“My son’s father is not working because of COVID, and I do agree that he is self-isolating,” Kaplan said. “He just doesn’t have work to do right now, he’s self-employed. And I’m sure there’s not going to be anything to collect.”

Kaplan, who provides coaching for parents navigating the court systems, tells CityNews she’s already heard from parents, who are nervous about what this will mean for families who don’t have any other income. Though she says she’ll be able to manage, she is more concerned for others, including clients who can’t afford a lawyer.

“There are a lot of older people that are dependent on that, they’re not ready for pension or the pension wasn’t that much,” Kaplan said. “It’ll affect every element of their life. What can we do on an emergency basis for people that their child support can’t be collected.”

Two different family lawyers tell CityNews they’ve received numerous calls from parents on both ends of the spectrum, including those who can no longer make payments because their circumstances have changed.

“I’ve heard lots of issues about it in the last few days because people aren’t getting what they expected to get for support,” said John Shuman, with Devry Smith Frank LLP. “My concerns on both side, is people are going to take advantage of it and not pay support and we’re going to end up going to court. It’s a tricky time to go to court.”

In light of the pandemic, courts and related governments services have moved their operations online. Judges are currently giving priority to urgent matters, such as child abduction, while financial issues like child support are likely to get pushed back.

“In the interim there’s nothing set up to help people who are reliant on support,” Shuman said. “It leaves them to wait. They won’t get support now, but it doesn’t mean that their support has been cancelled or anything during this period, it means it just hasn’t been collected.”

Shuman says those obligated to pay child support, should still do so if their financial situations have not changed. Otherwise, they may fall behind in their payments, because unless a judge says otherwise, the payee will be in arrears.

Lawyers say the test of urgency can be difficult to meet, a judge must be convinced that the matter can’t wait any longer. According to John Shuman, while Toronto has resources to respond faster, other courts in others parts of the GTA, don’t.

“There are some parts of the GTA where you can’t get support motions yet, until it becomes urgent and someone is in dire financial strains,” Shuman said. “The court administration is regional and Toronto has it’s own. Other courts in other regions, where the resources are thinner, aren’t able to handle a huge number of motions.”

Barry Nussbaum with Nussbaum Law Professional Corporation is advising those with lost income to sign up for some of the governments relief programs, so that they aren’t behind on payments.

“Because of the powers that have been given to the FRO, it’s often enough of a push for payers to ensure they meet their requirements,” he said.

Both provincial and federal governments have jurisdiction over family law, with the former responsible for enforcement. In Ontario, enforcement currently falls under Ontario’s Family Responsibility Office, but the province says the pandemic will have some impact on the flow of payments and that they are currently monitoring the situation to ensure minimal disruptions.

“The suspension of the regular operations of the Courts as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak has also had an impact on family law litigants in Ontario, as well as the court-based enforcement tools FRO has at its disposal,” said the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. “We are responding to every case as best we can and working with both payers and recipients to determine the best possible outcome in each individual situation, within the parameters of our statutory mandate.”

The federal government says it will continue to garnish income tax refunds and tax credits to ensure payments are made, also adding that in the event of job losses, there is help available for Canadians.

“Under Canada’s Economic Action Plan for COVID-19, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) will cover Canadians who have lost their job, are sick, quarantined, or taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19, as well as working parents who must stay home without pay to care for children who are sick or are home because of school and daycare closures,” said a spokesperson from the Department of Justice. “The Canada Emergency Response Benefit related to COVID-19 is not garnish-able to satisfy family support obligations. The CERB is unique and time-limited. “

On Friday, Nussbaum says courts announced they’ll have greater capabilities to hear cases.

“Which I believe will expand the ability to conference issues of child support, which admittedly the past couple of weeks have been left on the back burner because the courts were faced with closing up,”   “There is hope that the courts will open up and these issues will be addressed.”

Therefore Nussbaum advises parents to consider addressing the issue with the court systems, even if it doesn’t meet the urgency, so that they are in cue when the courts reopen.

“Courts are willing to conference the issue as of April 6th, and one hundred percent you should bring this up with a lawyer,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of urgency, it’s very important to get the ball rolling now.”