I have always been a stickler for parents meeting their financial obligations towards their children, but sometimes it is easy to overlook that parents are human beings, often trying to cope with very difficult circumstances, and different people can be affected in different ways. Strict rules can lead to consequences that can push people to, or beyond, their limit. A truly humane family justice system needs to recognise this. Some will say that no such system exists, but I would hope that it does, even if it may not be possible to create a perfect system that never makes mistakes.
The story I am about to tell takes place in Canada, but it could equally have taken place over here. Indeed, it probably has.
Jeramey was a 45 year-old man living in British Columbia. He had once been a reasonably successful businessman, but recently his business, at least according to him, dried up and he declared himself bankrupt. Jeramey had been married to his first wife for almost eight years, and had two daughters with her, now aged about eight and ten. He was also briefly engaged to another woman, who had his son. Finally, on Valentine’s Day 2015 he married his second wife, Angela.
Jeramey and Angela will never celebrate their third anniversary, as on 9 March Jeramey took his own life, in a most brutal way. It seems that he rigged his own truck so that when he drove down an embankment, his neck would break. A blood-spattered suicide note was found in the truck. It read:
“FAMILY LAW NEEDS REFORM. I recommend mandated lower costs and less reward for false claims of abuse. Parental Alienation is devastating. I loved my children as much as a husband and father could. I see no light. Recommend; an authority consistent during high conflict separations: It is exploited in family law.
Sorry Dad and Angie. I’m very sorry.”
The story behind the note is a harrowing tale of a family justice system pushing one person to breaking-point and, ultimately, denying three children a father. Jeramey complained that his first wife alienated his daughters against him, with the result that he had not seen them for eleven months. The court required Jeramey to pay $6,500 a month maintenance for his first wife and daughters. He had applied to the court to have that sum reduced, but his application was refused. His first wife was also seeking he be found in contempt of another order and fined an additional $10,000. Meanwhile, his former fiancée had obtained a maintenance order for their son, making Jeramey’s total maintenance liability $8000 a month, which by my calculation equates to about £4,800 per month. He did not meet the payments in full, and British Columbia’s Family Maintenance and Enforcement Program was chasing him, apparently moving to take away his driver’s licence and passport for failing to meet his financial obligations. In October last year, he was jailed for non-payment of support and breaching court orders.
According to Angela, Jeramey’s ex-wife was due to get his pension if and when he retired, his bank accounts were locked, he lost his homes, his vehicle, and his business. “You emasculate a man and take away his ability to provide” she said, “He’s a human being. He has limits.”
Two days before he took his life, Jeramey wrote to his lawyer. He said:
“I’m tired … Not only have I lost my children which by itself has torn me into two, but I have lost all my assets in life … The level of cruelty brought on by what could have been a simple divorce was and still is mind blowing and I’m simply not the same person I was, and I expect I’ll never see that person again.”
Where to start with this?
Well, the first thing to say is that there are of course always two sides to a story. It may very well be that Jeramey’s first wife and former fiancée see things very differently. However, what cannot be denied is that Jeramey, rightly or wrongly, felt that he had been failed by the system, and felt that he had no way out, other than to take his own life. A system that does that to a person needs to carefully look at itself.
Another thing to say is that each person’s limit is likely to be different. Maybe another person in Jeramey’s position would not have felt the same way. Many litigants in the family justice system consider themselves hard done by, when the average person would think that they are not.
I’ll look in a moment at what could be done to reduce the chance of such tragedies, but first a quick look at the consequences of Jeramey’s actions.
It is of course a minor point, but it may be significant for Angela: the death does not cancel out the maintenance arrears. They become a debt of the estate, and can be recovered (if the estate has funds) by the receiving party/parent, or the agency handling the case, such as our Child Support Agency/Child Maintenance Service, in the case of child maintenance. Obviously, this could have serious economic consequences for the new family of anyone pushed to the limit like Jeramey.
Far more important, however, is the fact that three children have lost a father, who apparently cared for them very much, in appallingly tragic circumstances. They will never really know their father. How do you explain to them what happened? Will they ultimately blame it on their surviving parent? This tragedy will stay with them for their entire lifetimes.
So how can we stop such tragedies from happening? Well, it’s probably true to say that we can’t ever stop them entirely. Parental alienation, for example, is a horrendously difficult issue to deal with, and it must be remembered that if it happens that is not the fault of the system, but of the ‘alienating’ parent. I couldn’t possibly go into the arguments about parental alienation here. Suffice to say that we need to be constantly striving to find better ways of dealing with such matters, although quite how that can be done with dwindling resources, I’m not sure.
As for the money issues, it is extremely difficult to come up with any answers, as ultimately the judge has to make a decision, based upon the evidence. Sometimes those decisions are going to be wrong. They can also be very good decisions, as I’ll mention in a moment. At least Jeramey had a lawyer to speak for him: many in his position in this country would not, without the availability of legal aid.
As to the issue of child maintenance, I don’t know how that is calculated in Canada. Over here, of course, we have a formula, and a system that, for most people, is dealt with remotely, rather than through the courts. A formula could protect people from being required to pay what they cannot afford, but on the other hand its rigidity could result in unfairness. Personally, I feel that a system with a human touch would surely be better, rather than an impersonal system that relies on fixed rules and formulas, with outcomes determined by computers. We did, of course, once have such a system here, before the advent of the hideous Child Support Agency. Then, child maintenance was determined by judges and magistrates, who were not bound by rigid formulae, and could respond appropriately to genuine cases. The paying parent had a chance to appear before them, and put their case in person, explaining the reality of their position. The system wasn’t perfect, but at least there was that human connection between the parent and the decision-maker, with the possibility that tragedies like the one above could be spotted in advance and headed off by good decision-making, and possibly even the suggestion of outside help for the parent in genuine difficulty.
As I think I’ve made clear, the system is not perfect, and we should all be trying to make it better. I think that the present system with human interaction between parties and decision-makers is the best method available to us. Which brings me to my last point: it seems that we are being faced with a future where more and more of the work of the family justice system will be dealt with online, and without direct human interaction. Surely, such a system will find it even more difficult to spot the Jerameys of this world? Could it be that things are actually going to get worse, rather than better?