“The administration of the claims by the [Child Support] agency is a sorry tale.”
So said Upper Tribunal Judge Paula Gray in MJ v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and FD (CSM) (Child support – cancellation), the latest example of the shocking inefficiencies of the child support system.
Now I’m not going to go into the detail of this case. All I want to discuss is mentioned in the opening paragraphs of Judge Gray’s judgment. As she explained, the case concerned two children who were born on 17 February 1993 and 20 March 1994 respectively and were therefore aged nearly 25 and 24 when the judgment was handed down on 5 February this year (just to remind you, the child support system only applies to children under 16 or under 20 and in full-time education). Their parents separated way back in 1996, the two children remaining with their mother.
The aforementioned ‘sorry tale’ (for each of the two periods since 1996 when the father was liable to make payments) was compounded by the father’s lack of co-operation over many years (where have we heard this before?) and the mother’s lack of contact with whatever agency was responsible for administering child support at the relevant time. Ah, I hear you say: the mother was at fault too for the delay! Well, yes, but I’m sure Judge Gray was right that her lack of contact was likely due to her frustration at the lack of progress in dealing with her claims over all the twenty-plus years since she and the father separated.
As I said, I’m not going to go into the details, but the decision in the case is noteworthy. It was that the First-tier Tribunal had no jurisdiction to entertain an appeal by the mother against a decision of the agency, because by that time the children had grown up and the maintenance assessment had therefore ceased! That particular type of appeal is contingent upon there being “a maintenance assessment in force”. In other words, the case had gone on so long that the system was washing its hands of it. I wonder what that decision did for the mother’s sense of frustration?
This is really not good enough. The old court-based child maintenance system may have had its faults, such as inconsistency of orders across the country, and I’m sure it could be frustrating at times for the parent seeking maintenance, but I don’t recall ever dealing with a case that was still grinding on years after the children had grown up. Under the child support system such cases are not unusual, and the frustrations along the way for parents with care are many times worse. At least when those parents were dealing with a court they had a chance to appear before the court in person and state their case, rather than (for the most part) deal with faceless administrators under the child support system.
One only has to look at the appalling level of failure of the child support system to collect child support that was due to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. A year ago the government admitted that a staggering £3 billion in child maintenance debt owed by parents under the Child Support Agency may never be recovered. The child support system was never fit for purpose, and never will be. Surely, we can do better?
Yes, I know that this case was dealt with under the original 1993 child support scheme rather than the shiny new 2012 scheme, but have things really improved that much? The system is still a nightmarish impenetrable forest of regulations which, as this case shows, can trap even those tasked with administering and regulating it. It is just as likely as ever to ensnare the parent with no access to legal advice.
If we had had a government that really cared about the plight of children suffering as a result of the lack of financial support from their absent parents (not to mention the plight of the parents caring for those children), then this awful child support system would have been swept away years ago. As I said, the old court-based system of child maintenance orders may have had its problems, but it was a lot better than this.
If you want to read the judgment, you can find it here – and good luck with understanding the arcane intricacies of the child support system!