JUDICIAL DISCRETION IN THE DETERMINATION OF POST-DIVORCE CHILD SUPPORT: A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE APPLICATION OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN MAINTENANCE ACT 99 OF 1998 AS COMPARED TO THE CANADIAN FEDERAL CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES OF 1997
Keywords:child support obligations, post-divorce, interpretation, calculation of maintenance contribution, means, child support
There are various models for determining and allocating child support obligations post-divorce and many different principles upon which such a policy can be based. In most legal systems the parents retain the duty to support their needy children after divorce as it is primarily their obligation to ensure the adequate financial welfare of their children. This principle is applicable in both the South African and Canadian legal systems. In South Africa, in terms of both the common law and legislation, both parents must maintain their children “according to their respective means”. The awarding of a specific amount of maintenance is, however, a complex process calculated by the courts on a case-by-case basis mainly by considering two issues: the needs of the children and the parents’ ability to maintain their children within the circumstances and means of each of the parents. Although both aspects are important in a maintenance enquiry, the focus of this note is on the interpretation of the calculation of the contribution of each of the parents, especially the non-custodial parent. The interpretation of the concept “means” obviously has important consequences for the parties: the broader the interpretation of the “means” of a parent, the higher the proportion of the contribution of that parent would be towards the support of the children. This is especially important in South Africa where a substantial proportion of those who are obligated to pay maintenance is impecunious. The Canadian law rested on similar principles until 1997 when the federal government promulgated the Federal Child Support Guidelines as an amendment to the Divorce Act. The impact of these Guidelines on the calculation of the parental share of post-divorce child support has been far-reaching. The aim of this note is firstly to examine the meaning of the term “means” within the South African legal system as set out in the common law, the various statutes and as these have been interpreted by the majority of courts over the past century. The second aim is to give a brief overview of the Canadian Guidelines and to compare their current system with the South African scenario. The rationale for choosing this jurisdiction is (i) the fact that in both jurisdictions the courts have the ultimate say over the amount of support paid; and (ii) as the Canadian position before their 1997 amendments was similar to the current South Africa system, it was envisaged that by exploring their reasons for change and evaluating their current system, some useful insights might be gained in solving some problems experienced in the South African maintenance system. The note will conclude with some suggestions for reform in South Africa in light of the Canadian experience.
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