The Supreme Court of British Columbia just released a fascinating decision regarding the effect of alcoholism on a payor parent’s maintenance obligations. The case, B.F. v. J.F., 2014 BCSC 1892, dealt with the child support obligations of a man, B.F., who had lost his job due largely to his alcohol abuse. B.F. argued that because he had to take medical leave in 2013 and was therefore unable to work, his obligations under a 2008 consent order should be retroactively reduced.
As any British Columbia divorce lawyer knows, alcoholism is a frequent participant in divorce and family law proceedings. Mr. Justice Meiklem addressed potentially contentious and controversial issues: Is alcoholism a disease? Is there choice on the part of an alcoholic to curtail his or her destructive lifestyle? In his judgment, the Judge determined that while B.F.’s, 14 months of reduced income was “…sufficiently significant and long lasting to constitute a material change of circumstances”, B.F.’s application should be dismissed as, “but for his choices not to manage his abuse of alcohol, he would not have felt forced to leave his job. In other words, his reduction in income was self-induced and was not a result of matters that were beyond his control”.
The decision runs a risk of being interpreted simply and without the subtlety necessary to deal with what is a very complex issue. It appears that the court placed a very high bar on what constitutes addiction. Meiklem J. determined that because B.F. was later able, in the face of the diagnosis of a life-threatening alcohol related condition, to reduce or eliminate his consumption, his drinking was not an unavoidable compulsive addiction, but rather a choice. That line between choice and compulsion is nebulous though, and it may well be that such evidence will not always be readily available in cases which British Columbia divorce lawyers will deal with.
The court is concerned with whether loss of employment can reasonably be avoided, not whether doing so would be difficult. This means that British Columbia divorce lawyers face an interesting dilemma: If overcoming alcohol abuse may disentitle an applicant to a reduction in support, what advice should a British Columbia divorce lawyer provide an unemployed alcoholic client?