“I was incarcerated because I didn’t pay child support in prison.”

A man sentenced to four months in prison for failing to pay the excessive full amount of child support while in prison for the same crime complained that he had fallen into a vicious circle from which he would never escape unless the courts stopped would have understanding of the special circumstances.

The man, who only wanted to be known by his initials MS, is appealing against the prison sentence for not paying the full amount of maintenance during his time in prison after the court ruled that he could not afford that maintenance as an unacceptable excuse .

The 54-year-old told Times of Malta he was a self-employed real estate agent specializing in rentals and ran into financial difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic when the real estate sector suffered a severe blow.

MS said he had to sell his belongings, including his car, due to his financial constraints. He filed applications with the court to request a reduction in the maintenance amounts due, but the court rejected this and left the amount for his two children at €700 per month.

He was jailed between September and December 2022 for failing to pay the full amount to his estranged wife. While he was in prison, his ex-wife continued to file police reports about lack of pay, and in February last year he was charged with non-payment of child support during the three months he spent in the Corradino Correctional Facility.

Earlier this month, Judge Lara Lanfranco sentenced him to four months in prison after finding him guilty of the crime.

In her decision, the judge said that “the defendant's failure to pay support is not a valid excuse.”

“The defendant can secure gainful employment and there is actually nothing preventing him from doing so, and therefore his declaration cannot be regarded as an impossibility of fulfilling his obligation,” she ruled.

MS explained that he has been married for 14 years and has two sons. Everything was fine for the first 18 months since his separation, but then everything changed when his ex-wife changed her lawyer and claimed in court that he was “a monster” who psychologically abused their children.

“These were the first signs of parental alienation. I regularly paid the monthly maintenance of €500 as agreed in the separation agreement, but then she filed an application with the court in which she claimed that I was not paying my share of the extracurricular costs, as well as the costs of illness and education, and demanded asked the court to increase the maintenance amount to €800. The court partially granted the application and set the maintenance, including all additional costs, at 700 euros per month. I kept paying, but then COVID came. I had to give up my car and could barely afford basic necessities like food. I was still working like a dog, but there was just no contracting,” he said.

MS said the court repeatedly rejected his requests to reduce the maintenance amount due to the drastic change in circumstances, even ignoring the financial reports he submitted to support his claim. He said the family court had even refused to allow him to appeal the decision, leaving him in limbo and at imminent risk of a prison sentence.

In the meantime, he continued, his estranged wife reported him for seven months for not paying the full amount.

In March 2022, the court sentenced him to seven months in prison, but on appeal the sentence was reduced to seven weeks as the judge viewed it as an ongoing offence.

“In October (2022) I was detained and released on Christmas Day with just €5.20. I started applying for jobs through JobsPlus but wasn't even invited for an interview, so I went back to working in real estate. I also did odd jobs, but I didn't make enough money to pay the full amount and make ends meet. I paid €250 a month until I received another police summons to appear in court again. “It’s a never-ending vicious cycle,” MS said.

His lawyer, Conrad Borg Manché, said that a constitutional complaint had been filed because the increase in the maintenance amount was a “purely arbitrary decision” of the court and constituted an unlawful order. It is also alleged that his right to a fair trial was breached when his application for leave to appeal was refused. In both cases, the verdicts contained no possible justification or explanation, the lawyer said.

The man is part of the NGO Happy Parenting Malta, which is organizing a protest in Valletta today to raise awareness and demand urgent changes to the law and improvements to family court procedures to combat parental alienation.

The NGO has suggested that there should be a special agency/committee comprising experts in the field to look into the cases before the family goes to court.

She also proposes decriminalizing contact and maintenance.

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