EDITORIAL: Revamp Child Maintenance Act
AN ESSENTIAL QUALITY of a country’s justice system is based on the perception by members of the public that they are being dealt with fairly under the law. That is, when people feel that laws are just and justice is being meted out to them with fairness, equity and consistency, they have little complaint even if the matter goes against them.Conversely, when they perceive that a law discriminates against them, they feel that the justice system is failing them and they eventually lose respect for it.That’s why the maxim “Justice should not only be done, but it should be seen to be done” cannot be taken lightly. This often cited condensation of British Lord Chief Justice Gordon Hewart’s famous statement encapsulates an essential principle that is paramount in the rule of law in a democratic society. Magistrate Barbara Cooke-Alleyne’s assertion that the Maintenance Act should be amended to give fathers a better deal must be seen in the context of this principle.For years men have been crying out that they are discriminated against by this act, because it empowers women in child maintenance and custody disputes while disadvantaging them.How is this act unfair to men?For starters, under the act only women can claim “child support” from estranged spouses – a point noted by Cooke-Alleyne.Secondly, a man has no legal right to maintenance under the act, even if he has been taking care of a child for ten years. To get this he must pay to have his case heard before the High Court. On the other hand, a woman can simply go to the Magistrates’ Court and apply for maintenance at little cost.Thirdly, the act is silent on access of fathers to their children who are being raised by the mothers. And magistrates cannot force mothers to give fathers access to the children though that has been provided for by the court.Cooke-Alleyne’s views, which were expressed at a panel discussion on Wednesday night, must have been welcomed by Ralph Boyce, chairman of the Men’s Educational Support Association who has been leading a decade-long campaign to have the act revamped.Boyce has repeatedly said that the perception of many fathers taken to court for not supporting, or not fully supporting, their children was that the decisions were slanted towards women.Another beef he has with the act is that only the legal guardian of a child, normally the mother, can give permission for the child to have its DNA tested, a request which she could theoretically deny and so hold a man responsible for child support for a child which he did not father. And this is compounded by the fact that the man has sole responsibility for covering the costs of paternity tests, with no refund for negative results. That’s why Boyce wants the Maintenance Act revamped and a legislative mandate put in place allowing men to initiate paternity tests, with the responsibility to pay for them to be shared equally between partners.There is enough empirical evidence, and more than sufficient of the anecdotal variety, to show that the Maintenance Act should be revamped. Men have been complaining, and now a noted magistrate has spoken out about it. If justice must be seen to be done, Government should re-examine this legislation and rectify this injustice to men. It is no longer a matter of if this should be done, but when.