If a non-resident parent (‘NRP’) enjoys shared care of a child (i.e. an average of at least one overnight stay a week) then the amount of child support maintenance that they are required to pay will be reduced, with the amount of the reduction depending upon the number of nights per year that the child spends with the NRP. Accordingly, for example, if the child stays with the NRP for between 52 and 103 nights per year then the maintenance is reduced by one-seventh, if the child stays with the NRP for between 104 and 155 nights per year then the maintenance is reduced by two-sevenths, and so on.
But what if a court has ordered that the child should spend a sufficient number of nights with the NRP to warrant a reduction in the child maintenance, but the order is not being complied with – what is the effect of this upon the amount of child maintenance that the NRP is required to pay? This was the question facing the Upper Tribunal in the recent case EA v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and SA.
The relevant facts of the case may be stated quite simply (in fact, I am going to simplify them even further, for the sake of clarity). The mother and the NRP (I shall call him that, rather than ‘the father’, for the sake of consistency) had two children, one of whom is grown up, and the younger of whom is now aged 13. The parents divorced in 2013, and on the 31st of May 2013 the court made an order providing for the father to have overnight contact with the younger child, including alternate weekends from Thursday to Mondays, and additional holiday dates. However, by at least October 2015 the contact arrangements had broken down, as a result of which the NRP was not enjoying the overnight contact set out in the order. This was against the NRP’s wishes, the mother claiming that contact stopped because the child didn’t want it, and had run away one weekend to avoid contact.
Meanwhile, in August 2016 the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’) made a decision about the level of child support maintenance that the NRP was liable to pay with effect from the 24th of July 2016. The amount included a reduction for shared care, based upon the terms of the contact order. The mother requested that the decision be reconsidered, and as a result the decision was revised on the 1st of November 2017. The effect of the revision was to increase the payments by the NRP, because the deduction for shared care was removed, in the light of the fact that the overnight contact was not actually taking place.
The NRP appealed. The First-tier Tribunal rejected the appeal, and the NRP appealed again, to the Upper Tribunal.
The Upper Tribunal also refused the appeal. Whilst the regulations state that, when considering the issue of shared care, the CMS must consider the terms of any court order providing for contact between the NRP and the child, there is no obligation to determine shared care solely on the basis of the provisions in that court order. The weight to be attached to the court order is for the CMS to decide. They are also entitled to take into account evidence that the provisions of the order do not accurately reflect the number of nights for which the NRP is expected to have overnight care of the child during the relevant 12 month period. It is not the intention of the child support legislation that the contact arrangements set out in the court order must take precedence over the actual overnight contact, no matter how old the court order was or how long it had been ineffective. The deduction for shared care is to reflect the respective costs of caring for the qualifying child borne by the parent with care and the NRP, and to do otherwise would not be in the interests of the child, or in accordance with the policy intention of the deduction for shared care.
Here, the First-tier Tribunal had concluded that “there was likely to be no or limited overnight care in the 12 months from the effective date”, and that determined the matter. The Upper Tribunal judge concluded with the following:
“I can understand [the NRP’s] frustration. He wishes to see his son, and would like [the mother] to facilitate that. He considers it is in the best interests of his son to have contact with him, and feels it is unfair that he pays additional child maintenance, having lost credit for shared care because contact ordered by a court is not happening. However, if [the NRP] is not content with the present level of contact, he has avenues of recourse in the courts available to him.”
You can read the full report of the case here.