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Debate on the revolutionary Maintenance Bill was discontinued yesterday (October 13) in the Senate, to allow for further consensus on the contents of the provision and for consultations with stakeholders.
Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Senator A.J. Nicholson, who piloted the Bill, said the intention was to circulate proposed amendments to various women’s groups, churches and other concerned parties and allow time for consideration of the contents.
He, however, maintained that there was no need to refer the Bill to a joint select committee of both Houses as was suggested by Opposition Senator, Anthony Johnson during past debates.
Senator Nicholson said the Bill, which places equal obligations on spouses to maintain each other, on parents to maintain their children and on persons to maintain their parents and grandparents, “placed family life and interaction in Jamaica on a higher level of a modern and civilized construct”.
According to the Attorney General, the changes proposed by the legislation were necessary, as marriage was now viewed more as a partnership of equals than as a relationship in which the wife was the dependent partner. Accordingly, he noted that modern legislation has moved away from the traditional approach with regard to maintenance, to one which recognized the mutual maintenance rights of a husband and wife on the basis of need.
Meanwhile, on the matter of the “reports of plans by some men” to live with women up to the better part of four years and then deliberately break off the relationship to escape obligations, the Attorney General warned that “the Courts will hold that they have lived together continuously and apply the five-year rule”.
“They will do it.the Court is going to hold that it was not broken,” Senator Nicholson stressed.Under the Act, “spouse” has been defined to include a single man and woman who have lived and cohabited with each other as if they were, in law, husband and wife, for a period of not less than five years.
In the meantime, he said the Family Law committee shared the view which stated that the whole basis of maintenance rights and obligations needed to be changed to confer equal status on a husband and wife was shared. The report also states that maintenance should not be automatic but should be determined on the basis of financial need and liability.
Senator Nicholson said the Bill completed the circle which began in 1975 with the passage of the Status of Children Act, amendments to the Intestates’ Estates and Property Charges Act in 1988, the recent passage of the Child Care and Protection Act, the Property (Rights of Spouses) Act and the Inheritance Act which, he said, all spoke to the enhancement of family life in the country, with the welfare of children as the paramount goal.
The Attorney General also informed that the proposed amendments made by Senator Dorothy Lightbourne in a past debate had been taken on board.
At the time, Senator Lightbourne said while she was in support of the legislation, there needed to be provision in the legislation for the Court to look at the situations under which persons were granted maintenance. She said if left untended, it “opened up avenues for unscrupulous persons” to “deliberately” break up relationships to make claims under the Act.
Furthermore, she pointed out that discretion was also to be exercised when making orders for maintenance claims by parents, since equity in this matter would be dependent on the question of whether the parent had supported the individual in the past, had been abusive or was an absentee parent. She further recommended that the Family Court have more hearings in Chamber, as it was embarrassing to have family matters aired in public, especially when children were involved.
In the meantime, a decision as to when debate on the matter is to conclude is to be taken by Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Senator Burchell Whiteman and Leader of Opposition Business, Senator Anthony Johnson.