CSA forced to review policy and listen to parents

28 Nov 2005

A Chester father has, through legal proceedings, forced the Child Support Agency to reconsider its decision not to recover maintenance for his children from his former wife.

As a result of the Court proceedings the CSA have conducted an “extensive review” of enforcement procedures and agreed to introduce a new policy. This case is important because it has forced the CSA to listen to the voice of a parent with care (custody).

The case was listed for full trial on the 23 November. Just before the trial the CSA agreed to “quash” its decision not to take action. The CSA recognised that the case raised “important issues”. As a result of the case the CSA also intends to introduce a new policy in relation to enforcement and to establish a “dedicated enforcement directorate” in line with proposals put forward by campaigning family law group Resolution, earlier this year*.

Martin, from Chester, has care of 2 children. His former wife has been ordered to pay maintenance by the CSA. Over a long period of time she failed to do so and over 50,000 of arrears had accrued. Martin (who cannot be named for legal reasons) took judicial review proceedings in the High Court in London to force the CSA to recover the maintenance on his behalf.

The CSA agreed to pay Martin’s legal costs and bring the case back to Court so its enforcement policy can be scrutinised early in the New Year. The new CSA policy provides formal recognition that the purpose of child support legislation is to ensure that maintenance is paid to the parent with care and that there should not be a reluctance to use powers available to the CSA. The CSA will recognise, for the first time, that orders for enforcement should be sought in most cases, however the CSA recognise that exceptional circumstances may exist to postpone enforcement.

There are 1.3 billion of arrears of maintenance yet the CSA have only obtained about 5,000 “liability orders” in Magistrates Court each year to allow them to recover arrears. A liability order is the essential step required before the CSA can use most of the enforcement procedures available.

Stephen Lawson, solicitor for Martin and a member of Resolution’s CSA Committee said “I am delighted with this outcome. There is real evidence that the CSA are at last beginning to listen to the views of both parents”.

Notes to editors:
*Resolution has been calling for radical change for some time and in June 2005 submitted its proposals in a report to government, Reforming the Child Support Agency: putting money where mouths are.

Key points from the report are:
The transparent formula, introduced in 2003, should be retained for most cases and be moved within the Inland Revenue to allow easy access to reliable income data, the key factor under the formula.

A new Child Maintenance Arbitrator should be introduced to quickly resolve complex cases so disputes can be settled fairly and decisively. This will prevent delays in payment. The removal of complex cases will unclog the Agency, freeing up resources. Couples will generally accept an imposed solution when they have had their say and a decision is made by an impartial, expert third party.

A separate Maintenance Enforcement Unit should be established with a single focus on ensuring payment. Existing powers should be used to a greater extent so that non-payment is not tolerated.

Couples should be able to agree a fair solution themselves and be bound by their agreement without the risk of interference by the Agency, unless there is a legitimate public interest such as a benefits claim. Where couples are already involved in divorce/separation proceedings in the courts, the court should retain jurisdiction so the overall financial settlement is not undermined by a subsequent CSA application.