Justice Ministry mulls codifying child support

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Justice Ministry in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The Justice Ministry is considering revising the nation’s child support laws, in a move that may help address the problem of unpaid support and assist the growing number of single-parent households who have been struggling to stay afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Only 24% receive support

The coronavirus crisis has been especially hard on many single-parent households.

A single mother in her 30s who lives in Tokyo with two children said that as the pandemic dragged on, her ex-husband’s company went bankrupt, causing the child support checks to dry up.

“All of a sudden, things got very difficult,” the woman said. The unexpected lack of support left her unable to buy clothes and shoes for her growing children. “I feel awful to have to put the children through this, but there’s really nothing I can do.”

The Civil Code stipulates that child support is a matter to be agreed upon by couples as part of their divorce proceedings. After a divorce, custody is predominately granted to mothers. But according to a survey conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in fiscal 2016, only around 43% of fatherless families said they had a child support agreement in place. Moreover, only 24% of the households surveyed said they were actually receiving such payments. This number is likely even lower now amid the pandemic.

Difficult conversations

On Feb. 10, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa directed the Legislative Council to review the nation’s system for supporting children, including the recourse to collect unpaid child support. A family law subcommittee began evaluating detailed amendment of the Civil Code and other legislation at its first meeting on March 30.

When filing for divorce, couples are asked but not legally required to check a box on the divorce petition, inquiring whether they have come to an agreement regarding the payment of child support. However, it is not always easy or possible to have constructive conversations when tensions run high, especially in the case of abusive relationships. This difficulty is thought to be a factor behind the relatively low percentage of child support agreements.

Under the current system, bad blood between parents can negatively impact the growth of children, so the Legislative Council has been evaluating whether to stipulate in the Civil Code that children have a right to child support, which would provide clear grounds for seeking payment from derelict parents.

To boost the percentage of couples who enter into child support agreements, the Council is also considering whether to make the check box a mandatory item on divorce petitions in principle.

The Legislative Council will consider the recommendations of another Justice Ministry panel of experts that met at the end of last year to debate the child support issue, such as a proposal to require that notification of child support agreements between couples also be filed with a third-party administrative body.

To put abusive or otherwise derelict parents back on the hook, the council will also examine whether single parents can be given recourse to seek child support payment, even in the absence of an agreement with their former partner, at a fixed rate decided by law.

Growing desperation

Based on the Legislative Council’s findings, the Justice Ministry hopes to submit its proposed amendments to the Diet at an early date. At a press conference on Friday, Kamikawa said, “I expect that the review will be both thorough and conducted with a sense of urgency.”

Half of Japan’s 1.4 million single-parent households are thought to live in “relative poverty,” at an extreme financial disadvantage compared to the national average.

The Youikuhi Soudan Shien Center, a child support counseling service entrusted by the health ministry in Tokyo, has been receiving an endless stream of inquiries from single parents, seeking advice on stopped payments.

“Many families who were simply trying to hang on, waiting for the pandemic to end, are near their breaking point,” said Tomoaki Yamazaki, the center’s director. “There’s a palpable, growing sense of concern.”