Throughout my training and post-qualification, the child maintenance regime has always appeared to be in a state of flux (or “a shambles” depending on how cynical a person you are).
It comes as a relief therefore that plans for an overhaul of the system are being proposed, as set out in the recent policy document “Supporting separated families; securing children’s futures”.
Family practitioners like myself will shudder with dread at the very mention of a new client who is “having problems with the Child Support Agency”.
I spent four years acting as an agent solicitor for the CSA, prosecuting those who had not paid towards their liability orders, or were accused of not providing their evidence of income to the CSA.
The figures in those cases were mind-boggling. I remember having to set out the extent of the debt to the magistrates:
-”Mr X has an unpaid CSA liability of [tens of thousands of pounds], there are outstanding arrears to regular maintenance of [thousands of pounds], no payments are currently being made, and Mr X has paid [ten pounds] towards the liability order.”
-“When was the liability order made Mr Smith?
-“4 years ago, your worship”
The hearings were frequently unattended by the non-payer; often the parent to whom the money was supposed to be paid had no idea that the prosecution was taking place, or more likely had given up trying to communicate with the CSA.
I have heard horror stories from those who have tried to produce their income evidence to the CSA, being sent around endless call centres at various office locations, speaking to a different person each time. One client in particular drove from Lincolnshire to Falkirk to hand deliver his evidence in person to ensure that it reached the right person.
An overhaul has of course been planned before, via the introduction of CMEC (Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission) in 2008. This was introduced to solve the failures of the CSA and to assist in the recoupment of £3.8 billion in maintenance arrears. The new assessment regime implemented by CMEC was due to commence by the end of 2012.
The new plans, to be termed the Child Maintenance Service, centre on trying to encourage separated parents to reach their own agreements:
“We believe that the best outcome for children in most families is for parents to make a collaborative family-based maintenance arrangement”
The first step will be “the Gateway”; a conversation with an officer of Child Maintenance Options (an impartial body providing advice on maintenance), in which both parents will be given information on their maintenance options and support services. If after the conversation ends the parents are able to make their own arrangements then the assistance will end
The next step for those parents having to walk through “the Gateway” and seek more formal assistance will be the application stage. This is where the fees kick in.
It will be a 3 stage procedure:
1. Application (which attracts a fee for the applicant, waived for applicants who declare they have been a victim of domestic violence), followed by;
2. Maintenance calculation – if the payments are then made directly between the parents, no further fees will apply. Where no direct payment is made;
3. Payment collected and enforced.
Interestingly, where the Child Maintenance Service collects the payment, a fee will be charged to both parents. The incentive to parents using the final method is that much higher charges will be levied if court proceedings become necessary, with fixed costs attached to each individual method of enforcement.
It all sounds very Big Society to me. “Work it out between yourselves because you’re not getting it for free anymore.” Don’t get me wrong, as a Resolution lawyer I am very much in favour of parents reaching mutual agreements for the sake of the children. I do worry though for the stereotypical single mother on state benefits, who can’t afford the £20 application fee and can’t afford the collection fee if the absent father does eventually start paying.
The projection is that by 2013 the Gateway will open and the charging procedures will start. All the existing CSA cases will be closed by 2017 and there will be a single Child Maintenance Service with one scheme.
Should these plans progress beyond consultation, I would be very interested to see how successful the Gateway is, and how often parents have to resort to using the application and collection process.
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