As, I’m sure, most family lawyers will attest, and possibly contrary to the view of many of those outside the justice system, the vast majority of family cases are resolved by agreement. Only about ten per cent go to court, with the others being settled along the way. The simple reality is that most people are reasonable and don’t want a fight, and so they choose to sort out arrangements following relationship breakdown amicably – possibly with a little assistance from a lawyer or a mediator.
Mindful of this fact, the government cleverly designed the latest iteration of the child support maintenance scheme around the idea that it should take credit for cases that are resolved by agreement, rather than just for those cases where it has managed to collect maintenance from recalcitrant parents. In this way the new scheme could be heralded as a great success, rather than as an embarrassing failure, as it had been for successive governments previously.
Of course if you want to blow your own trumpet then you must have a musical score to follow. Thus at regular intervals the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will bombard us with its latest statistics, trumpeting how wonderfully successful it has been. The latest of these were published on the 1st of August, detailing ‘Effective family-based child maintenance arrangements’ up to March 2017.
For the benefit of those not au fait with the workings of the current child maintenance scheme, the point of entry for a parent seeking child maintenance is the Child Maintenance Options (CM Options) service. The service ‘provides impartial information and support to help parents make informed choices about child maintenance’, and must be contacted before applying to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which is the agency that actually sorts out child maintenance for parents: the successor of the ill-fated Child Support Agency. The primary purpose of CM Options is to try to encourage parents to sort out their own arrangements for child maintenance, thereby deflecting cases from the CMS.
If parents can sort out the child maintenance themselves, that is called a ‘family-based arrangement’ (FBA). The other thing you need to know is the measure that the DWP uses to determine whether the FBA is effective. It says that effective FBAs can be regular payments where at least some of the agreed amount is always/usually received on time and the parent (presumably the receiving parent) thinks the arrangement is working very well or fairly well, or occasional financial payments or transactions in kind (e.g. school uniform) where the parent thinks the arrangement is working very well or fairly well. Note in particular that ‘effective’ does not necessarily mean that all of the agreed amount is paid, as most people might expect ‘effective’ to mean.
The latest statistics give estimates of the ‘child maintenance outcomes’ of clients who called CM Options between February 2016 and January 2017 (don’t ask me why the statistics use such odd dates). Amongst the things they tell us are the following nuggets:
- 17 per cent of clients made or changed effective FBAs after contacting CM Options during that period.
- 29 per cent of arrangements were FBAs, 85 per cent of which were effective.
- 54 per cent of arrangements set up by the CMS were effective.
- Only 34 per cent of court arrangements were effective.
Okay, the first two points might seem at first glance contradictory, and therefore require a little explanation. The 29 per cent figure is actually made up of the 17 per cent figure, plus a further 7 per cent for other effective FBAs (set up before the parent contacted CM Options), plus another 4 per cent that were non-effective. (The eagle-eyed will spot that these figures don’t add up to 29 – the difference is I think due to rounding).
So what do the figures tell us? Well, I can’t say that I am that impressed. Just 17 per cent made effective FBAs after contacting CM Options? That seems to me to be an awfully low success rate. And only 29 per cent made FBA? That doesn’t compare well with the 90 per cent I referenced at the beginning of this post (albeit that one was not necessarily referring to child support arrangements only).
And then of that small number of FBAs, 85 per cent were ‘effective’ (by the DWP’s standards). At first glance, that seems to compare well with the number of effective arrangements arrived at through the CMS and the courts, but obviously one would expect agreed arrangements to be far more likely to be paid by the non-resident parent than arrangements forced on them by the CMS or the courts. (The bad showing of the courts may be explained by the very small sample size, only 1400 arrangements in total).
As I mentioned earlier, these are not the first statistics we have been treated to. I looked at some here previously, way back in December 2014. The figure then for the number of effective FBAs made after contacting CM Options was about the same. In other words, CM Options is not doing any better now than it was then. As I said then, not very impressive, and certainly nothing for the government to shout about.
The DWP’s statistics can be found here.