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Visiting Child Maintenance Options (from Solicitors Journal)

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.

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

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  1. JamesB says:

    What a mess! The sooner the subject of child maintenance is back with the Family Law courts, where it belongs, the better.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Hi James
      Except of course it can’t go back to court. The courts are already swamped out and all set to get worse come the abolition of legal aid. …so this system will expensively and appallingly persist. And now they’re even thinking of something formulaic for wives…heaven help us all.

  2. JamesB says:

    As I said, what a mess. I think the advice is to not separate when children are involved, it is too complicated. Or if you do, to do it between you.
    I do know a religious man who says the reverand of his church is doing this work increasingly, as I think are Imams and Rabbis and pre nups and informal agreements. There seems to be a gap in the market to be filled, or not.
    Perhaps the mess is a good thing in encouraging couples to stay together, or if not, avoid court and csa. I think that. I do not want a good CSA, for me that would be a contradiction in terms and there should be no such thing.

  3. JamesB says:

    P.S. I am not contradicting myself as I do believe in marriage as per the bible and natural law. CSA set formulas are not in the good book also.

  4. JamesB says:

    Neither are dodgy Unreasonable Behaviour petitions, etc.

  5. JamesB says:

    I do hope they fail. Sorry, but Government intervention in the bedroom and family should not happen, it is a family or religious matter.

  6. Yvie says:

    ‘ And now they’re even thinking of something formulaic for wives’
    Hi Marilyn – I was interested in your comment above. What exactly does it mean? Are they to assess mothers’ income as well as fathers or is that too good to be true? There is a certain unfairness when the lower earner pays the higher earner sometimes up to 40% of their income, especially if there are arrears which have built up through no fault of their own.

  7. JamesB says:

    I think we all know it is an unfair broad-brush approach Yvie. To be honest it feels like racism, except I don’t think NRPs (or rather no Child benefit receiving separated parents) are (wrongly) not classified as a group in need of protection or indeed as human beings or anything other than a source of income. It is absolutely disgusting, nothing more, nothing less. We are people, not scum as we are portrayed and regarded by these people. Regardless on if they say it in a nice way after a 10 week training course, they are still calling us scum, worthy as nothing except to tax for their immoral laws which are completely wrong and immoral and amoral and contrary to natural law and needs to change to a more discretionary system. No, it is not fair, it is absolutely disgusting the formula based csa approach regardless of morals, situation, everything really, needs to be fairer, either by a judge, pre nup or something, what we have is absolutely disgusting, but I think I have said that already. Marilyn was right to resign from it. I would have or wouldn’t be there in the first place. I need to go and calm down now, this subject really upsets me soo much.

  8. Friend says:

    “I do hope they fail. Sorry, but Government intervention in the bedroom and family should not happen, it is a family or religious matter.”
    I’m afraid you are 5 decades too late James; the police state is way too advanced by now.

  9. Friend says:

    “The courts are already swamped out and all set to get worse come the abolition of legal aid.”
    Things will not get any worse or better.
    Just as many will see that their petty squabbles are no longer worth it now that the taxpayer isn’t footing the bill, and the incentive that now exists for divorcing the hubbie so as to feed off of him like a parasite for the next 16 years will diminish.

  10. JamesB says:

    I agree with that Friend. With fewer married, the incentive to divorce will be lower also. I just hope that there is no co-habitation bill to marry people against their will de-facto instead.
    Respect to Marilyn for publishing all my comments ;-), thanks. Most lawyers or people with a vested interest in the existing system wouldn’t. I have respect for this site as a source of freedom of speech. I do ask that like familylore under John Bolsh you do post when the consultations come up and how to do them also please.

  11. JamesB says:

    Plus mine was 19 years. My little girl was less than 1 year old. That’s a 19 year sentence, longer than you’d server for murder!
    The charge ‘unreasonable behaviour’ – sick joke. As I say, absolutely disgusting.

  12. John says:

    I enquired on a routine matter to the CSA regarding my last child left in the system with 5 payments to go, after 13 years of involvement with this ‘not fit for purpose’, ‘shambles’. Now I find that the goalposts have been moved and I am supposed to to pay until 20, if they remain in education.
    What more do our corrupt politicians and these people want? I am being persecuted!
    What are the chances of any legal challenge to this disgraceful shambles?

  13. Yvie says:

    They are considered to be adult by the age of 18. That should be end of any involvement of the State regarding payment of ‘child’ maintenance. If fathers are able and willing to help fund their children into further education then that should left to the family to sort out for themselves.

  14. John says:

    A failure by the courts in dealing with the mother on contact issues, and dealing with incompetent CSA staff, and having this disgraceful system imposed upon me, having paid thousands in divorce, has cost my two non resident childen their inheritance. I have told them to question their mother and the CSA regarding this!
    Whay happens between me, my ex and the children is absolutely nothing to do with the state!
    If the state decide to hand out money to the pwc, that is their problem. Not mine!

  15. JamesB says:

    I agree with John.

  16. Kev says:

    It’s nice to see I am not the only one, I totally respect that I have to pay for my child, but the CSA take nothing into consideration. My rent is 4 x more than the mortgage my ex-wife has on a property I had to forgo, he new husband earns the same as me, and she works. My new partner is expecting and doesn’t work, so I have to give my ex 15% of my Salary and be a 1 person income family! Oh I asked the CSA do they take into consideration clothing I buy for my child… Answer you are not obliged to buy anything as your legal obligation has been paid. Try telling that to an 8yr old.

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