A familiar scrunching feeling took hold of my guts as I read Christie Blatchford's latest article on family law, the one about the father who died by suicide.
I practised family law from 1985 to 2009 and was never so relieved in my life as when I finally stopped. At last, my adrenal glands could cease to work overtime; the perpetual knot in my stomach could relax. Truly, it's a horrible occupation.
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But from that vantage point, there were things that I was easily able to predict. One of them was that some men would be driven to suicide by the burdens the law thrust upon them.
I raised this issue in April 1998 before the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, when they were examining the effects of the then new Child Support Guidelines. Here's an extract from the written brief I submitted:
"With increasing frequency, we hear news stories about people who kill their spouses, their children and themselves, often in situations where they are recently separated. I believe these guidelines will contribute towards that tragic trend. I think they will push more people to murder and suicide. Other people will be driven to leave the country, or to vanish into the underground economy.
We may never see the statistics to support these predictions I'm making, because the reasons why people do these things are hard to capture in a database, but I know how my clients are reacting to the news I give them when they ask me what their rights and obligations are. I worry about them."
When the subject of suicide came up during my oral presentation (here's the transcript), Senator Marjorie LeBreton's response was as follows:
"What upsets me is the tone, and raising the spectre of murder, suicide and fleeing the country. While you may hear of incidents like that, I would not want to see that become the overriding event. I believe these incidents are few and far between, and I hate to see that kind of language used in hearings such as this where we are attempting to deal with reasonable people coming to a reasonable solution in the interests of children."
My concerns were swept under the rug because the Senate hated to hear such language used. And now Ms. Blatchford tells us about Jeramey A., whose suicide note was headed "Family law needs reform." He has certainly not been the first to think so.
"They feel there is no other way for them to have any financial comfort or rewards left for themselves after all their hard work."
Another impact of the Child Support Guidelines that I predicted back in 1998 was that they would shift the battleground and make family litigation even more frequent and unpleasant than it already was. The guidelines were supposed to reduce litigation by making child support more predictable and uniform, but it was easy to see how this could backfire. Here's what I told the Senate:
"Already I know that the strategies which I discuss with my male clients have changed. The financial stakes are now so high that it may be more worthwhile for them to take a stab at gaining custody of the children. More men are willing to consider that option than formerly. They feel there is no other way for them to have any financial comfort or rewards left for themselves after all their hard work."
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I checked today to see whether any statistics had been published that might either confirm or refute my prediction. Google told me that the Federal Department of Justice had a report online, updated as recently as January 2015, about child custody. However, when I went to look at it, I found that all the figures dated back to 1994 and 1995, before the enactment of the Child Support Guidelines.
If anyone has ever published statistics trying to tease out the effect of higher support payments on the number of custody contests, I haven't been able to find them. Maybe it's another instance of Canada's policy-makers consciously preferring to bury their heads in the sand.
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