JIS News

Debate on the Bill to amend the Maintenance Act continued in the Upper House on September 30, after a motion by Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate, Anthony Johnson, to refer the Bill to a joint select committee of both Houses, was turned down.
The Bill seeking to amend the Act to place equal maintenance obligations on both sexes as spouses and parents, which was piloted in the Senate by Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Senator A.J. Nicholson, sparked much discussion as Opposition members, while agreeing with the “intent” of the Bill, argued that further discussion was needed on the contents of the provision as well as public opinion.
Opposition members, led by Senator Johnson, said there was need to have a joint select committee of both Houses to further consider the Bill as it was a provision that could revolutionize family relationships in Jamaica.
This recommendation was, however, not carried. Information Minister, Senator Burchell Whiteman in his remarks, said if the contents of the Bill were communicated “without embellishment”, the issues could be understood by the public. Furthermore, he said debating the Bill did not mean foreclosure on opportunities for public debate.
He was supported by Senator Nicholson who pointed out that the Bill would suffer a similar fate as the Property Rights of Spouses Bill, which had “languished in a Joint Select Committee for three years”, if it was referred to a joint select committee.
Opposition Senator, Dwight Nelson said he could not accept the view that the Bill would “languish in a joint select committee”, as its expeditious passage was reliant on the skillfulness of the Joint Select Committee Chair.
Senator Nicholson said it was “far from true that there was no public debate on the Bill”, as several groups had revised the provision. He also said the matter could be understood if it was reported without embellishment, prophecies or personal views.
Furthermore, he noted that the provisions in the statute were not new and had always been included in the law. “We are not in favour of sending it to a joint select committee; that is a waste of time,” the Attorney General said.
Opposition Senator, Dorothy 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, as it could “open up avenues for unscrupulous persons” to “deliberately” break up relationships to make claims under the Act.
Furthermore, she said discretion should 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. She also recommended that the Family Court had more hearings in Chambers, as it was embarrassing to have family matters aired in public, especially when children are involved.
The proposed amendment to the Maintenance Act seeks to make spouses equally liable for the maintenance of each other. Such liability is however, based on financial need and ability. Each spouse is to be made equally liable for the maintenance of their children, and maintenance rights and liabilities are to be extended to cohabitants who meet the qualifying criteria.
Additionally, the Court is to be empowered when making maintenance provision for a spouse or child upon the breakdown of a marriage or upon the termination of cohabitation, to make a property division in lieu of, or in addition to a monetary order, where it considers this to be appropriate.
The provisions concern all maintenance matters during the existence of the union and upon its breakdown, and provide not only for the maintenance of spouses by each other, but also provide for the general maintenance of children, parents and grandparents.
Based on the recommendations, a policy decision was taken to allow the new legislative changes relating to maintenance to apply to cohabitants, to meet the specified criteria, as it was recognized that legal solutions for the problems resulting from a breakdown of the family should not only address married couples but should also address common law couples to ensure effectiveness.
Senator Nicholson pointed out that several pieces of legislation would be impacted by the changes to the Bill, as with the recognition of equality of the sexes in the Bill, consequential amendments to the Matrimonial Causes Act were also necessary.
The amendments proposed to this Act, he said, would enable a married man to apply for maintenance upon dissolution of the marriage, which was previously the exclusive to married women. “A married man can now apply for maintenance upon the dissolution of marriage, and extending the duty of maintenance to parties who previously were not so obligated is a departure from the traditional approach,” he explained.
He stressed that the jurisdiction to grant maintenance upon the dissolution of marriage has always been exclusive to the Supreme Court and this would not be disturbed.
Furthermore, the Justice Minister said there would also be implications for the Affiliation Act which, despite placing emphasis on the duty of a putative father to maintain his child, is outdated as with the removal of the provisions with regard to children born out of wedlock, the Act was deprived of its efficacy.
Debate on the Bill will continue at next Friday’s (October 7) sitting of the Senate.