B.C. Family Law: Ensuring Compliance with Court Orders

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Simply obtaining a court order in your family law matter is not always enough to ensure compliance by your former spouse.

In some cases, family law litigants may need to take further steps to force their ex-spouse to obey an order regarding issues such as property division, child support and spousal support.

Orders for financial disclosure

Not all court orders come at the end of a case, following a full trial and decision on the merits. Much earlier in the process, family law litigants come together to talk about issues in dispute and settlement options at Judicial Case Conferences (JCC), where a case management judge guides discussions.

As well as consent orders on which both parties agree, the judge handling the conference is also empowered to make procedural orders to address outstanding disclosure issues, requiring either party to deliver certain financial information by specific dates.

For example, the judge may require one party to turn over documents such as tax returns, pension information, investment account details or sworn financial statements within a period ranging anywhere from 30 to 90 days, depending on the complexity of the task or practical difficulties they could encounter.

The point of this kind of order is less about setting one party up for failure and more about keeping the matter moving forward and facilitating resolution.

I’ve previously written about the importance of full and frank financial disclosure to the property division process. Under B.C.’s Family Law Act, each spouse is entitled to half of the family property, unless the parties have an agreement stating otherwise or other exceptions exist. Depending on the situation, that might include property such as the family home, bank accounts, insurance policies, pensions, or shares in a business.

However, comprehensive proper division is impossible until all family property and excluded property are identified and valued, which is why financial disclosure can become a frequent sticking point for parties going through a separation.

Enforcement and potential penalties

Once an order has been made at a JCC, it is enforceable. In many cases, no further action will be required since most family law litigants understand that compliance with court orders is not optional, even if they do not have a lawyer of their own to drive home that message.

If a party to an order fails to comply with the terms of an order, the other party may bring an application in the B.C. Supreme Court seeking relief, which can include fines against the offending party. The Justice or Master hearing such an application has the power to hold the offending party in contempt of court if that party is unable to provide a reasonable explanation for their failure to comply with the terms of an order.

The court takes financial disclosure extremely seriously in family law cases, and a harsh view ought to be taken when a party makes only half-hearted attempts at compliance. However, if the court is convinced that a party has done all they can to secure the necessary documentation, the court will consider the circumstances and facts before it to determine the appropriate remedy.

Otherwise, the court could make a finding of contempt and impose a fine, often payable to the offending party. In extreme cases, the court could order the imprisonment of a party for contempt, although the non-compliance generally must be repeated, intentional, and fairly egregious before this becomes a realistic possibility.

Enforcing child and spousal support

For parties seeking to enforce spousal or child support orders specifically, the  B.C. Family Maintenance Agency, often referred to as the Family Maintenance and Enforcement Program, or FMEP, offers a potentially more straightforward alternative to a court proceeding.

This publicly funded organization tracks support arrangements, collecting amounts owed under court orders and court-registered separation agreements, before passing them on to recipients.

When payees fall into arrears, the agency has several options to force compliance, including garnishing wages, registering a lien against land or personal property, reporting the payor to the credit bureau, instructing ICBC to refuse to issue or renew the payor’s driver’s license, etc.

However, it is important to bear in mind that FMEP cannot collect support orders without specific, set amounts due for child or spousal support. An experienced family lawyer can help you ensure that your order or agreement is effectively drafted to comply with the agency’s requirements.

*This post is not intended to be legal advice and should not be taken as such. Please contact McConnan Bion O’Connor & Peterson if you have any questions regarding this post or require assistance or legal advice regarding enforcing support orders.