Growing Pains: Getting To Grips With Child Maintenance Arrears
Published on 19 November, 2021 | Laura Guillon
It is an unfortunate fact that tens of thousands of relationships break apart in the UK each year.
The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that more than 107,000 marriages ended in divorce in England and Wales alone during 2019 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2019).
To that tally can be added the many cohabitations which do not last the course.
Whilst such events can be understandably upsetting for adults, we shouldn’t forget the toll which they can exact on children caught up in these circumstances.
Although many parents are only willing to contribute to their children’s upbringing after they split up, the costs involved can be a continuing source of friction.
In March last year, for instance, news reports detailed how one-third of separated parents were not paying any child support (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/530fe4fa-5bda-11ea-9891-dcb2edabd2b0?shareToken=d5477f4c62569b5a6ad28c093c67e0c7).
Under pressure to find a solution which addressed the concerns of parents and children alike, the Government conducted a six-week consultation this summer aimed at “modernising and improving the Child Maintenance Service [CMS]” (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/child-maintenance-modernising-and-improving-our-service).
The proposals included changes to the way that assessments about how much child support should be paid were calculated.
Reform appears to be even more urgent, if we take the latest official figures into account.
A research paper compiled by the House of Commons’ library has revealed that that the amount of unpaid child support processed by the CMS in June stood at £421.5 million, up from £219 million in 2018 – a rise of 92 per cent (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7774/).
That information would be damning enough were if not for the publication only days before of a closing set of statistics from the Child Support Agency (CSA), the body which was replaced by the CMS in December 2012 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/child-support-agency-quarterly-summary-of-statistics-june-2021-experimental/child-support-agency-quarterly-summary-of-statistics-june-2021-experimental).
The document set out the degree to which the winding up of the CSA has progressed, noting that “a small number of CSA cases remain which have historical debt built up under the CSA schemes.”
Those residual debts have resulted from almost 42,000 cases and amount to £291.1 million.
However, they are dwarfed by the sum – £2.036 billion – which has been written off since a Compliance and Arrears Strategy was established to manage outstanding arrears three years ago.
As I have told Jonathan Ames, Legal Editor of The Times, the situation is only likely to increase pressure on the CMS (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/42a3ae0c-48b0-11ec-9969-911e63457092?shareToken=21658af931c6583b8282718ca5f8a50f).
Even more than the colossal size of arrears which have accrued under the CSA and its successor body, many parents – both mothers and fathers – believe the system of determining and then securing payment of child maintenance is unfair and unwieldy.
I have represented fathers informed of substantial and very sudden increases in their contributions but offered no explanation.
Mothers also often find themselves pursuing a fair and reasonable level of child support from wealthy former partners who, because of a loophole, are obliged to pay much smaller amounts than might seem sensible.
In some of my cases, that has meant millionaires paying as little as £7 per week.
Reviewing such determinations can be a very lengthy and a very costly exercise. Even if the matters are made the subject of a court order, both father and mother are free to ask the CMS to revise that decision 12 months later.
The net outcome is a system which provides neither parents nor children with any certainty and can have a significant lasting impact on families.
There is no doubt that the CMS has a difficult job to do. However, I totally understand those individuals who believe that substantial changes are required if it is to achieve its objective of protecting children and tackling non-paying parents far more effectively.