Ombudsman Ontario

Ombudsman Ontario

August 09, 2006 10:30 ET

Ontario's Family Responsibility Office Dropped the Ball in Collecting Delinquent Child Support

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(CCNMatthews - Aug. 9, 2006) - In his most recent report titled, "Its All in the Name," Ontario's Ombudsman Andre Marin found that the Ontario Family Responsibility Office needs to accept greater responsibility for ensuring that the rights of Ontario's Families are protected in the enforcement of support orders.

The Ombudsman found in his investigation, that the enforcement office failed to warn a father who was owed child support arrears that a Writ of Seizure and Sale it had registered against the property of the delinquent support payor, his former wife, was useless because it was in the wrong name.

"The Family Responsibility Office dropped the ball" Mr. Marin commented. "Its practices have cost the complainant at least $2422.00 - money which should have gone to feed and clothe his son. He should be compensated for his loss and systems should be put in place to prevent this from happening again.

"Sadly this case reflects the very malaise which is all too prevalent among government bureaucrats. Administrators have taken a wooden view of their rules and obligations and forgotten that they are dealing with real people."

The Ombudsman noted that the Family Responsibility Office could not rely on the defense that it had followed its own internal policies and procedures, when it allowed the worthless enforcement Writ to be filed and did not warn the support recipient that they would need to get a new court order so that a new Writ could be filed, if they wanted to be able to collect on the back support owed.

"The Family Responsibility Office was content just to sit back and lead the support recipient on. It neglected its fiduciary responsibility and displayed a cavalier attitude towards an individual it was duty-bound to serve," remarked Mr. Marin. "It is no answer to the complaint that ineffective policies and procedures were followed."

The Ombudsman rejected the Family Responsibility Office's argument that it was a "neutral" agency which had no obligation to advise support recipients that enforcement Writs may be useless to collect money owed in arrears if the support payor has changed their name.

"One does not have to be rehearsed in the law of government fiduciary obligations to know that this kind of attitude and behaviour is malodorous." Mr. Marin commented "Those charged with the enforcement of support orders must accept that they have a duty to act in the best interest of those who the support was intended for.

"It is evident to me that a cultural change is required in the way the Family Responsibility Office views its role. Its passive "hands off" approach must be replaced by a proactive, common sense, and good faith attitude towards support recipients."

The Ombudsman's report contains five recommendations including that the Family Responsibility Office change its policy and procedures to inform recipients about the use of Writs of Seizure and Sale where support payors may have changed their name or use different names and that legislative changes be made to ensure more effective enforcement of support obligations.

This press release is available in French

The Ombudsman is an officer of the Legislature and is independent of both the political process and government administration. Generally an office of last resort, the Ombudsman investigates and resolves complaints about provincial governmental organizations and recommends corrective action. Services are free and confidential. Other languages can be arranged. For further information, call 416-586-3300, TTY 1-866-411-4211 or visit our website: www.ombudsman.on.ca

Backgrounder

"It's All in the Name"

Ombudsman investigation into complaint of the Family Responsibility Office's ineffective enforcement using a Writ of Seizure and Sale

The Ombudsman's Investigation and Findings

The Ombudsman found that the Family Responsibility Office (the FRO) had acted unreasonably when it failed to inform a father that a Writ of Seizure and Sale to collect arrears of child support for his son, which had been filed against the property of his former wife, could not be enforced because it was in the wrong name. The Writ was in the former wife's name as it appeared on the court order requiring her to pay child support to the father and she had since remarried and had used a different name to register her property.

Both the father and the FRO were aware that the former wife was using a different name but no one told the father that he might want to get a new court order so a new Writ could be issued. This was despite the fact that the father had repeatedly advised the FRO that his former wife was about to sell her property and had sought and received their assurance that a Writ was in place so he could collect on the unpaid support monies. As a result of the problem with the Writ, the father was unable to recoup $2,422.00, which he could have gotten from the proceeds when his former wife sold her property.

The Ombudsman found that both the FRO's conduct in this individual case and its policies and procedures relating to the use of Writs of Seizure and Sale were unreasonable, noting that the FRO routinely neglected to inform support recipients that a Writ of Seizure and Sale would not be enforceable to collect support arrears if the support payor has changed their name and has a different name registered on their property. The Ombudsman did not accept the FRO's explanations that it was not obligated to provide this information to support recipients because it was a "neutral" agency or that providing the information would violate the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act or amount to providing legal advice to support recipients.

The Ombudsman also found that the FRO owes support recipients an obligation to act in their best interests, given its legislated mandate to enforce support orders. The government, he noted, by assuming the role it has through the FRO, is obliged whether by law or simple notions of fairness to use its powers in good faith, with appropriate standards of care, and in the best interests of those lawfully entitled to support.

The Ombudsman's Recommendations

The Ombudsman recommended that the FRO pay compensation in the amount of $2,422.00 to the father, which represents the amount which he could have collected from the proceeds of the sale of his former wife's home if the Writ had been enforced. He also recommended that the FRO change its policy and procedures so that support recipients are advised of the possibility that a Writ may not be enforceable if the support payor has changed their name or uses a different name, in order to allow them to protect their interests and attempt to obtain an amended court order and new Writ. In addition he recommended that legislative changes be considered to ensure that Writs of Seizure and Sale can be more effectively and efficiently enforced when support payors who are in arrears change their name or use different names.

The Minister of Community and Social Services responded to the Ombudsman's report noting that the Ministry takes the concerns it identified very seriously. On behalf of the Minister and the Ministry, the FRO accepted all 5 of the Ombudsman's recommendations including agreeing to pay compensation to the complainant. The FRO also undertook to report back to the Ombudsman in six months time on the implementation of all of the recommendations.

The Family Responsibility Office

With a budget of over 48 million dollars, the Family Responsibility Office enforces support obligations on behalf of approximately 185,000 families in Ontario. According to the Family Responsibility Office's records, as of March 31, 2006, over $1.3 billion in support arrears remained uncollected; including almost $200 million representing money owed to Government as a result of social assistance payments to support families of delinquent support payors.

Court-ordered support must be enforced through the Family Responsibility Office. While there are some circumstances in which individuals can "opt out" of this enforcement program, of necessity, the vast majority of support recipients are completely dependent on the Family Responsibility Office to ensure that they receive the support they are entitled to.

The Family Responsibility Office has historically experienced administrative problems, which it attributed to an antiquated computer system. An overhaul of the Office's computer and case management system is not scheduled to begin until November 2006.

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