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Child maintenance – how’s it going?

Child support is always a major factor in making arrangements for children on separation. It’s an emotive subject for many parents, who are perhaps influenced by reports of (or scarred by experiences of) the Child Support Agency in the 1990’s or early 2000’s. The agency’s highly complex formulae for assessment and labyrinthine processes are no longer being applied to the extent they were, but they have left a legacy of mistrust of the state child maintenance system.

That’s a shame, because child maintenance is one of the most important pieces of the financial puzzle for children whose parents have separated. It recognises that parents who look after children more of the time tend to have greater costs. At the lower end of the economic spectrum, child maintenance can be a vital lifeline for children of parents struggling to cope financially. At the higher end, it can be a way of ensuring that ongoing maintenance obligations are weighted to the time that the children are at school. Either way, it is difficult to argue with the principle of child maintenance: that each parent should contribute appropriately to the financial costs of bringing up their children.

The current position is that the Department of Work and Pensions has taken over the running of the Child Support Agency. There are three different schemes currently in operation, the latest being the 2012 scheme. The Agency currently administers child maintenance payments under the two earlier schemes (1993 and 2003). As of December 2015, there were still 1.27million of these live cases, the statistics say that about 9 out of 10 parents under these schemes with primary care of children are receiving payments through the service or a direct agreement. Outstanding arrears from the previous schemes still stand, however, at around £3.8 billion. It must be expected that the majority of this will never now be recovered and passed to the parents to whom it is owed.

New cases – those on the 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme – are run by the DPP through the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). This ‘new’ scheme focuses on encouraging parents to make a ‘Family Based Arrangement’ between themselves for the payment of child maintenance. To get support and advice to do this, parents are asked to call a service called Child Maintenance Options that will take them through the different processes available for the calculation, collection and distribution of child maintenance payments. There’s a calculator to help work out how much should be paid, but little by way of explanation as to how the figures are worked out.

If parents are unable to agree on the amount of child maintenance and how it is paid, they can ask the CMS either to assess the amount, and/or to arrange collection and distribution, or both. This costs, however: the parent who is to receive the maintenance needs to pay a £20 application fee, and then another 4% of each month’s maintenance if the payment goes through the Service. The paying party gets whacked with a 20% surcharge on top of the assessed maintenance. These fees are meant to deter people from involving the CMS if they can arrange matters between themselves. Commentators have suggested that penalising parents who receive maintenance for having to use a service because, eg, their former partner won’t pay voluntarily, is not an attractive message to send, and that the hefty percentage uplift on those who pay through the CMS does nothing to improve relations between co-parents. Nevertheless, the charges remain.

The most recent statistics show that of those who contact the Child Maintenance Options service, 11% go on to make or change a family based arrangement. The government does its best to paint this as a success. Elsewhere in the statistics, we see that 47% of parents accessing Child Support Options get help from the CMS to sort out their child maintenance, but 29% come away with nothing at all. This could be seen as a high failure rate for a government service that is supposed to be dedicated to improving children’s life prospects by ensuring appropriate financial support from both parents.

The new system itself seems to be beset by certain difficulties – a recent reported case shows that the computer systems may still be erratic and mistakes are still being made in the interpretation of regulations.   The description of the regulations as ‘Kafkaesque’ by the Tribunal initially hearing this case is worrying, and must raise concerns about the ability of this system really to get a grip on child support and ensure that the right support gets to the right children in the right way.

We watch and hope that the ‘new’ system beds down to help parents fulfill their obligations to their children in a low-impact way. In the meantime, if you have any questions about child maintenance or any other area of family law, you can call us on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Simon, Sue, Gail, Tricia or Adam.

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