Dobbin Atlantic Scholar Report: Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines & the Experience of Nova Scotia: Lessons for Ireland?

July 26, 2018

Dobbin Atlantic Scholarship

Scholar’s Report on visit to the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University in April/May 2018:

“Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines & the Experience of Nova Scotia: Lessons for Ireland?”

by Dr Kathryn O’Sullivan, School of Law, University of Limerick:

In December 2017, I was selected as a Dobbin Atlantic Scholar and, as such, was afforded the opportunity to travel to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to undertake three weeks of research at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, between April and May 2018. I cannot speak highly enough about my visit and am sincerely appreciative for the support I received from the Ireland Canada University Foundation as well as my hosts at Dalhousie University, particularly Professor Rollie Thompson, for affording me the opportunity.

Research & Development Conducted:
Through my visit to Dalhousie University, I sought to further my research in my primary area of specialism, namely family property law. In order to consider the value of the visit and the research undertaken, however, it is first necessary to briefly contextualise the issue which I sought to investigate.

In short, wide redistributive powers are afforded to the judiciary in Ireland to determine the financial relief available to financially weaker spouses on divorce: there are no strict rules, starting points or presumptions when it comes to determining how property is divided and how entitlement and/or quantum of child or spousal support is calculated. The answer to these questions is largely left to the discretion of the court in any given case. This highly discretionary approach has proven quite problematic and drawn significant criticism. Prior to 1997, similar challenges were also reported in Canada specifically in the context of child and spousal support: two areas of law which, until then, afforded much discretion to the Canadian judiciary. However, in Canada, through the introduction of Child Support Guidelines (CSG) in 1997 and Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines (SSAG) in 2005, much of this discretion was either removed or restricted. Through my visit, I hoped to investigate the success of these developments and determine the possible utility of such guidelines in Ireland.

Experimental Procedures & Results:
During my first week, I was privileged to spend time with Professor Rollie Thompson of Dalhousie University – the co-creator of the SSAG and one of the foremost experts in Canada in relation to both the CSG and the SSAG. From these meetings and the literature review I was conducting in the Sir James Dunn Library, I gained a much better appreciation for the dual role of not only the SSAG but, equally importantly in an Irish context, the CSG. With this much more nuanced understanding of the Canadian system, in my second week, I began to engage with a range of family law stakeholders, not only in Nova Scotia but in other provinces of Atlantic Canada, gaining important qualitative feedback on their experience. I conducted semi-structured interviews (50-60min duration) with various members of the judiciary, both family law specialists and generalist judges. Given the high settlement rate in much of Canada, I also interviewed family law practitioners on their experience of using the CSG and the SSAG in negotiating agreements on divorce between clients. I continued these interviews in my third week also, travelling out of province to this end.

The overall feedback I received on the CSG and SSAG was overwhelmingly positive. While areas for improvement were highlighted, all of the stakeholders I spoke with voiced their support for guidelines and provided very valuable feedback in terms of how Ireland might learn from their experience. The findings of this research will be published in more detail in academic publications through 2018/19.

Contacts Made:
As mentioned, a key factor in my undertaking this research in Nova Scotia was the presence of Professor Thompson, the foremost expert in the field, in Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie. Professor Thompson could not have been more generous with his time and for this I am extremely grateful. As the interviews were conducted on the basis of participant anonymity, it is not possible to provide a list of names of those I engaged with, however, I made a number of important contacts within the legal community both in Nova Scotia and beyond.

Future Continuing Collaboration:
The warmth which I was shown, and which was noted for Ireland, by those I interviewed – judges, lawyers and divorce specialists – bodes well for the development of these relationships in the years ahead. From this visit, I have developed a network of stakeholders in Nova Scotia and in wider Atlantic Canada and it is my intention to invite representatives from this network to Ireland in 2018/19 with a view to hosting a family law research event considering the possible role of guidelines in Irish divorce practice. Key among these contributors, it is hoped, will be Professor Thompson who has already signalled his interest in visiting the University of Limerick in the near future.

During my stay in Nova Scotia. I met wonderful people from the legal sector and from the wider community. Given the timing of my visit, I saw spring arrive (quite rapidly) in Halifax, most obviously in its beautiful Public Gardens. In addition to inviting my new contacts to Ireland in the not-too-distant future, it is my keen desire to return to Nova Scotia and see much more of the beautiful peninsula in the years to come.

Aside from the academic outcomes of the visit, one of the biggest things I will take away from my stay was the incredibly strong connection that Nova Scotia and, in particular, Halifax has with Ireland. From Murphy’s Cable Wharf with its strong links to Valentia Island to Holy Cross Cemetery with its thousands of Irish dead; from the monuments commemorating the Irish-speaking fishermen that settled in aptly-named ‘Irishtown’ in the 18th Century to the large Celtic Cross on George Street and its 1916 memorial. The links with Ireland were visible at every turn. I hope that, building on this visit, I will be able, in some small way, to reinvigorate these connections in the future.

Finally, I would like to once again take the opportunity to thank the ICUF and Dalhousie University most sincerely for their support of my visit.

Holy Cross Cemetery, Halifax