Somewhere in a lawyer's Church confirmation days (or was it Constitutional Law 101?) can be recalled the phrase: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."

In Bruni v Bruni, Justice Quinn of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice is quoted as saying:

"I come now to the issue of spousal support, historically the roulette of family law (blindfolds, darts and Ouija boards being optional)."

The genesis of Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines, first published in 2005 (further version: 2008), is the clash of those two principles in Courts of law for over a century.

When the government of Canada first announced, in 2002, that they were looking at spousal support guidelines, they described the landscape as follows:

Spousal Suport Advisory Guidelines"Across the country, continuing legal education programs on spousal support draw record numbers. At the National Family Law Program in Kelowna in July of 2002 any session dealing with the topic of spousal support was scheduled in the Grand Ballroom—and the room was full throughout the day. Lawyers and judges are seeking guidance in what has emerged as one of the most difficult areas in current practice. Media coverage of judicial decisions awarding spousal support in the face of a final release in a separation agreement unleashes unending debate about the appropriateness of long-term support obligations.

"The law of spousal support is confused, uncertain and controversial."

Family law lawyers were sinking in a morass of esoteric if not eccentric judicial statements on spousal support most of which came from the Supreme Court of Canada, in some of which are still argued; disastrous decisions because they were barely understandable by lawyers and were irreconcilable with other decisions of that same court.

They were all but gibberish to the self-represented litigant. Wade through Moge v Moge (1992) and Bracklow v Bracklow and form your own opinion.

Codification does not come easy or naturally to common law lawyers. They tend to wait until the last minute when the crisis is dire.

But child support guidelines had come into play since 1997 and almost overnight  significantly reduced the expense and complexity of law, (the only two true goals of any law reform).

Canada does not get credit for original thought. It was merely modeling spousal support guideline initiatives that had been brought into other Commonwealth or common-law jurisdictions, especially Kansas, California and Pennsylvania.

And there was no denying the success of the national, coast-to-coast 1997 Federal Child Support Guidelines. The concept of the support guidelines is beautifully simple: if you earn $X, you pay $Y. Literally, the guidelines are comprised of charts where you line up the payor's income with the corresponding box of the number of dependents and the amount of basic monthly support is set out to the dollar (subject to, in the case of child support, more money having to be paid if there are special or extraordinary expenses).

The same with spousal support guidelines except that the goals of justice are completely different.  Historically, a wife asked a Court  for spousal support because she lost most, if not all of her opportunities to advance her career while she raised the children at home (and her husband rose to vice-president of the local gas company).

The other companion argument was that she, the wife was in need and had a right to share in the pool of resources often in the name of her husband.

Yet another factor was the length of the marriage: the longer the marriage, the longer the period of spousal support.

In 2005, the first version of spousal support guidelines came out and immediately, were hauled into Court and life was breathed into them. Advisory though they may be, the judges, to their credit, took to the Guidelines almost as if they were substantive law (they were not - they were advisory only - still are). The Guidelines (known to lawyers as SSAG) set out two formulas for spousal support: "without child support formula" and the "with child support formula".

As Madam Justice Prowse wrote in the 2005 case of Yemchuk v Yemchuk, judgment released mere months after the first edition of the SSAG:

"The (Spousal Support) Advisory Guidelines do not deal with entitlement to support, but are only relevant to issues of quantum and duration of support once entitlement has been resolved.  Nor do they address situations in which there are prior agreements between the parties dealing with spousal support....

" I have no hesitation in viewing the Advisory Guidelines as a useful tool to assist judges in assessing the quantum and duration of spousal support. They do not operate to displace the courts' reliance on decided authorities (to the extent that relevant authorities are forthcoming) but to supplement them. In that regard, they do not constitute evidence, but are properly considered as part of counsels’ submissions."

The 2013 edition of the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest of law proposes this agreeable statement of the law:

"The SSAG are very different from the Federal Child Support Guidelines. They have not been legislated by the federal government and operate on an advisory basis only.

"The SSAG are used to determine the amount and duration of spousal support within the existing legal framework of the Divorce Act and the judicial decisions interpreting its provisions.

"The SSAG are not legally binding and their adoption and use is voluntary. They are intended as a practical tool to assist spouses, lawyers, mediators and judges in determining the amount and duration of spousal support in typical cases. The various components of the Guidelines — the basic formulas, restructuring, and exceptions — are intended to build upon current practice, reflecting best practices and emerging trends across the country. Where the SSAG are presented in argument and a trial judge awards an amount that is outside the suggested range, reasons should be given for diverging from the range."

But the world is not perfectly round. The SSAG are not available in nice, simple and neat charts. Instead they present literally as calculus formula - easy for the chartered accountant but a challenge for lawyers and lay litigants. And even the formula, properly run, only produces a range for the amount and duration of spousal support, not just a single amount.

Translation: a special pay-per-use calculator is required from private law publishers which instantly presents a significant access to justice hurdle for self-represented litigants (DivorceMate and Childview, for example) especially since the bench expects to see calculations from these products. There are some free calculators out there but they present ominous warnings to the user. See, for example, mysupportcalculator.ca.

So, its a work in progress for the citizenry but the SSAG still beat the old Model T Ford of Bracklow and Moge.

Word to the wise: find a family law lawyer or paralegal friend of a friend who has access to the lawyer's version of a professional spousal support calculator and get your paws on the calculations. Don't enter Court without them because, to be sure, the other lawyer will have them under his (or her) arm. What you don't know can kill you.

The SSAG also contains a few useful pieces of information such as a threshold under which support ought not to be payable ($20,000) and some guidance in regards to the factors which might take a payor out of the SSAG range.

There are "regional variations, as well as rural and urban variations"1

and "the SSAG do not take into account the distribution of property or the goal of self-sufficiency...."2

The law - our beautiful law - especially in that unusual, unruly and emotional-rife area of family law - and even where an army of lawyers have met over decades to figure out a simpler approach to what is due Caesar's and what is due Mrs Caesar's - is so rarely, in the result, simple.

REFERENCES: