The Experts: Child support is a matter for judges

Family Law|July 22nd 2011

This is my latest post for The Times, which appears on The Expert blog.

This week the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) published its annual report and accounts for 2010/11. Earlier this month the Work and Pensions Select Committee published its proposed child maintenance reforms. Taken together, the two documents make for sombre reading.

CMEC is the successor to the much-loathed Child Support Agency (CSA), with the CSA becoming a division of the new organisation. At the time of its launch, CMEC trumpeted its “new and tougher enforcement powers”.

Back in 2008, the CSA owed £3.8 billion to single-parent families. At the time, a CMEC spokesman said: “Around half of the historic debt, about £2 billion, is collectable…The commission will use its powers to the full to ensure that parents do not evade their responsibilities.”

Fast forward to 2011, and I am horrified to discover that arrears are running at – you guessed it – £3.8 billion. At the same time, the amount considered collectable has been halved, from £2 billion to £1 billion.

The tough talk has been replaced by excuses. Stephen Geraghty, the former CMEC Commissioner, told the Work and Pensions Committee that the rest of the arrears have not been collected for a number of reasons. These include: the cases are more than 10 years old; the individuals concerned have died; and parents with care no longer want the money.

CMEC’s report and accounts make much of the marginally improved rates of collection and help being offered to parents since last year. Overall, however, I am less than impressed. Just 50 per cent of children from separated families are being helped. Given that £1.15 billion was collected in the year 2010/11, even the collectable arrears amount to almost a full year of payments.

CMEC comes across as a computer-obsessed, faceless organisation: every week 200 cases flow into something called the “long-term stuck queue” and a quarter of these “require some degree of clerical processing”. The staff headcount has been reduced by nearly 700 in the past year; absenteeism is high (8.5 days per employee per annum); and the true recovery cost of child support is £1 for every £2 collected.

It is now almost 20 years since the power to calculate and enforce child maintenance payments was removed from the courts. Since then the CSA has launched, relaunched (after a disastrous start) and finally been absorbed into the new CMEC in yet another bid to create a system that works. I dread to think how much taxpayers’ money has been spent in the process and, if the old CSA arrears have not been reduced but the collectable amount has been halved, can it really be said that CMEC is an improvement on its predecessors?

After all this time, I am unconvinced that the replacement of judicial discretion with a computerised, administrative system can ever work. Why not return CMEC’s duties to the professionals who do every other part of the job in family law?

Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. JamesB says:

    Yes, they they can set the maintenance at Zero, then there will be no arrears.

    In China they are doing very well and there is no such thing as child maintenance from someone who doesn’t live with the children.

    Don’t see why people should pay maintenance for their children if they have been chucked out for no good reason. That makes no sense really. As do these ‘arrears’ they are not arears, they are payments to finance a morally bankrupt fascist system.

  2. JamesB says:

    Meant, then they 😉 (1st line).

  3. Graham says:

    Every Sperm is sacred, My A%&e! Sadly it seems the CSA have taken the Monty Python song from the Meaning of Life a Little too seriously.

  4. Marilyn Stowe says:

    WM v CMEC (CSM) [2011] UKUT 226 (AAC) (13 June 2011)
    A recently published case that graphically demonstrates all that is wrong with the current system.

  5. Graham says:

    I don’t really understand it. Having had little time to study it. I did find the comment ‘ why should the absent parent not share the benefit of that evasion with his children?’ mildly amusing though. Seems like a bit of a waste of money going round and round really, bit like the euro.

  6. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Thanks Graham. Don’t you find all that time effort and energy into sorting the correct child support for a few years completely disproportionate?
    At the very least it seems to me the self employed should not be caught up in this system at all, which just hasn’t the resources to deal fairly with them. The staff aren’t trained forensically, the system is too rigid and inflexible, the time required to sort it out is too long. Self employed paying parents know that no matter what they agree in court, give it twelve months, they can apply to the CSA and if their income is sufficiently well disguised their payments will be substantially reduced.
    It’s vital for a recipient parent to preempt this happening if at all possible. A ‘Christmas Order’ is one to consider.

  7. Graham says:

    My ex kept taking me to court – with lawyers, me by myself – for 1/7 / 2/7 reduction and rpi, eventually I got fed up with it and went to the csa instead.

    I think child support payments should be capped at £400 per month. Seems to be the level above witch the NRPs start getting very angry (a serious point).

    I recently offered £400 (I have a new family now) to my ex wife pm, she wanted £500 increasing by inflation, CSA set it at £300. Before that we spent 5 years arguing about £30 per month. The attachment to earnings was £372.86 since 2005.

    Not sure what my point is, other than to avoid the county court like the plague for me and those around me. If I ever go there again – or I have any other establishment figure telling me how to bring up my children where there is no mistratment or malnurishment involved then I will call them Fascist and start shouting and screaming and throwing things. I also plan to make a scene in the waiting area of these feminist lesbian courts.

  8. Graham says:

    above which ;-).

  9. Graham says:

    I typed the above messages before I heard about the events in Norway. If I had of heard of them 1st, I would have toned them down a bit. Sorry about that.

    I don’t know where I fall on the political spectrum, I always thought fairly right wing, but I am not sure, more so now, so he failed in that respect. I hope he burns for it.

    There has to be better ways to make your point. If that is the way he makes his point, then I am not listening. I will not be reading his ‘manifesto’ or looking at him in court or regarding him and his politics with any favour or interest.

    I am even finding the Burkha quite acceptable these days. I was looking at a woman with one on the other day and I’m sure she smiled at me too, although obviously I’m not sure.

    I think this is one of the few areas I agree with Israel on, with their system of Proportional Representation. At least there these nutters don’t feel so disenfranchised. I would think this is a fault in the Norwegian political system and a nutter and guns. I think in the UK we have the same disenfranchisement without the guns thankfully. My thoughts are with the families and the Country a fair amount today.

  10. Graham says:

    Although I admit I know nothing of the Norweigan electoral system, so someone please correct me if I am wrong in saying that they do not have proportional representation.

  11. Graham says:

    I also support Turkey being in the EU for transparently good reasons – I like the Turkish.

  12. Graham says:

    p.s. I voted Lib Dem at the last general election, so perhaps I am not so right wing anyway, but I do get confused with politics. It doesn’t make much sense the news to me, hence why I only found out abiout this today. So much Law and Politics doesn’t make sense.

    It’s like in Court, none of it made sense to me, I think the Judge ends up siding with whoever he thinks is nicest on the day. When my ex wife was arguing for more money with an expensive barrister and me self representing because I couldn’t afford any representation, then I was laughing. The barrister was saying something like she would find it very difficult to live without something and I couldn’t stop laughing. Everyone looked at me. Thing is they spent £100k on lawyers fees to plead poverty. Hence, I do disagree with the state getting involved in this sort of thing as it is impossible to know the whole picture. In my case she was from a rich family and could always get money from there. Not that that counted towards me giving her everything and being left with nothing in the divorce.

    Your blog, as with the others seems to be female friendly and like Lady Byron with the women playing the victims. Speaking as someone who now has a third woman pregnant without asking, they are not as innocent as they make out.

  13. Graham says:

    She didn’t ask but said she was taking precautions – to clarify that.

  14. Graham says:

    She obviously wasn’t, and lied. Women do that as much, if not more than men.

  15. Graham says:

    I want to be a kept Man too, please can the Judges fix It for me.

  16. Graham says:

    From what I have read Anders Behring Breivik could have done with a Father in his life also. He was brought up in a single parent family by his mother with lots of half brothers and sisters. Not a good advert for dumping the husband and bringing up the children without their father present at all.

  17. Tulsa Divorce Attorneys says:

    It sounds to me like the CSA and CMEC have been hughely ineffective.

  18. JamesB says:

    I agree with the title and the article and thoughts behind it completely, especially about discretion and no broad brushes please. ‘The Experts: Child support is a matter for judges’.

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