Paying attention to deadlines

Authority Family Maintenance Enforcement Program, Ministry of Attorney General

Stu was paying court-ordered child support through the Attorney General’s Family Maintenance Enforcement Program (FMEP). He was paying off the amount he owed in arrears through a monthly Voluntary Payment Arrangement (VPA), and had not defaulted on any payments in the two years that he had been involved with the program. Stu had just started a seasonal job following a long period of unemployment when he received a letter from his FMEP enforcement officer asking him to provide updated financial information to maintain his Voluntary Payment Arrangement. After sending in the required paperwork to the program, he was notified that his payments would increase by more than 50 percent over his current payment amount. Unable to afford the proposed new monthly payment on his current income, Stu tried calling his enforcement officer. After receiving no further response, Stu learned that the officer had issued a notice to his employer to garnish his wages, and had taken further enforcement action by issuing an interception of federal funds, as well as a license and passport renewal denial. Unsure of what to do next, Stu turned to the Office of the Ombudsperson for help.

Our investigation looked at the enforcement action taken and whether it was fair and reasonable in the context of the legislation and policy that governs the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program. In reviewing the correspondence between FMEP and Stu, we noted that the letters the enforcement officer sent to him did not indicate a timeframe for negotiating a new agreement or a deadline for response. The notices also did not inform Stu that further enforcement action may be taken. Through our investigation we learned that the general practice is to allow 30 days for a response. In Stu’s case, the enforcement officer allowed only four business days before garnishing his wages, and did not return his messages to engage in further discussion before taking this action. The FMEP policy directs staff to attempt less intrusive measures such as Voluntary Payment Arrangements in circumstances where there is reason to believe they will comply with payments towards arrears.

Given that Stu had demonstrated a commitment to making regular scheduled payments, we believed the officer’s discretionary decision to take enforcement action without warning after only four days appeared inconsistent and unfair. In response to the administrative fairness concerns identified through our investigation of Stu’s complaint, the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program agreed to improve their communications with payors to include additional information about a deadline for response and a warning that further enforcement action may be taken. They also agreed to conduct a review of their policy to give greater clarity to staff on the time frames and discretionary decisions regarding these voluntary payment negotiations. Stu received a letter from FMEP, apologizing for the administrative errors that had occurred in his case and informing him of the program changes resulting from his complaint.

Category Income and Benefits
Type Case Summary
Fiscal Year 2017