From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 06/12/2012.
Child Maintenance Options is doing its best with limited resources, but is it enough, asks Marilyn Stowe
Every month I appear on ITV’s This Morning, for a regular ‘Divorce Clinic’ in which I answer viewers’ questions live on air. One subject is always guaranteed to prompt a deluge of messages, tweets and phone calls to the ITV studio. I expect that family law solicitors have already guessed what it is. Children. More specifically, child contact and maintenance. There are always more questions from bewildered parents than it is possible to answer on the programme.
Frankly, the parents aren’t the only ones in need of enlightenment. The government’s various proposals, announcements, initiatives and U-turns have left all of us scratching our heads – yes, even solicitors. The CSA has been launched and relaunched, with limited success. The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) was unveiled a few years ago, along with yet another list of planned changes, before being abolished and its functions transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions. DWP also took over Child Maintenance Options (CMO): a new, free information service, which helps parents make choices about child support.
Then there is the newly-revised formula used by the CSA to calculate maintenance, along with cuts to legal aid, a rise in the number of litigants in person, a new-found enthusiasm for nudging parents towards private arrangements, and proposals to levy charges upon parents who are obliged to turn to the CSA for help. One result of the most recent revisions is that there are now three child maintenance schemes in operation, the oldest of which dates back to pre-2003. No wonder my TV mailbag is fit to burst.
Is the situation set to improve? When I was invited to visit Child Maintenance Options recently, to see its service in action, I was very pleasantly surprised. I found the team tucked away on an industrial estate near Rotherham. There are 115 of them and, before being allowed to advise the general public, they undergo ten weeks’ training. When I listened in on some of the calls and web chats, I was impressed. One caller, who lived with violence in the home, wanted information about launching a maintenance claim in difficult circumstances. I also sat in on a web chat with an angry father who refused to pay maintenance because he disagreed with the calculation.
All credit to the team at Child Maintenance Options: although they aren’t legal professionals, they deal with complex cases. They do all they can to help parents reach private agreements about child maintenance, without resorting to the overstretched CSA. A case will only be referred to the CSA when all other avenues have been exhausted. From what I saw, they provide considered responses to all the enquiries fired at them, without ever getting riled.
I also took the opportunity to clear up a few questions of my own. For example, when exactly does the new CSA formula come into effect? It is a bugbear of mine that answers to such basic queries can be difficult to find. It turns out that having learned from previous meltdowns, the CSA is reluctant to roll out the new gross income formula until it has been successfully tried and tested on a smaller group.
So from December 2012, the gross income formula is being applied to families with four children. For smaller families, the net income formula will continue to be applied. The new formula is being rolled out extremely carefully and slowly: only when glitches have been cleared will it be rolled out elsewhere.
I came away from Child Maintenance Options impressed, although my reservation – and I am afraid it is a big reservation – is that the government’s determination to kill off legal aid and steer parents away from the law will end with families losing out, since private agreements are largely unenforceable.
Last week the government also launched a new web app called Sorting Out Separation, billed as a “one-stop shop for any parent”, providing information on legal issues ranging from children to conflict resolution. It dwells on nullity although these cases are extremely rare, takes up valuable space repeating the same information for married couples and civil partners and completely ignores remedies for cohabitants although half of all parents in the UK are unmarried. How can it hope to replace the personal services of a skilled lawyer: the best and most obvious source of legal advice when individuals want to know their own position in law rather than a skimpy overview?
The Child Maintenance Options team is certainly doing wonders with what it can, but look at what it has to work with.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal, and is reproduced by kind permission.