New Child Support Enforcement Powers – Will This Solve Everything?
FLiP Director James Pirrie provides a summary of what the passing of the new Child Support (Enforcement) Act means which came into force on 20 July 2023.
Siobhan Baillie, MP and family lawyer, has seen to the passing of the Child Support (Enforcement) Act which came into force on the 20th July 2023.
This step should help to address the performance of the CMS in the enforcement of obligations where at the moment only 41% are currently paying over 90% of what is due and 35% are not paying at all (find more information on the statistics here).
This current scheme was phased in from 2012 (iteration 3 since 1993 when administrative child support first started). Arrears under this scheme are already approaching £550m.
When we had meetings with the minister and their advisors all the way back in the noughties, when the new scheme was being worked out, what was intended was a system that:
- Would be resourced to get to the right answers; and then
- Would ensure that there was strict compliance [there would be no need for enforcement because everyone would pay in full given the inevitability of having to pay as the service would enforce promptly and effectively].
We suspect that cut-backs have made this harder to achieve as the CMS does not have the staff numbers. For a long-time the CMS simply failed to deploy the powers it has. However, when we turn to the latest CMS statistics, we can see an uplift in enforcement steps, for example there were only 18 suspended prison sentences in the year to March 2021 but this had become 308 in the year to March 2023. So perhaps change is already underway but if a culture of non-payment has taken root then it will take time for that to change and for compliance rates to build.
What this new law introduces is the power for the CMS to progress to more serious forms of enforcement more quickly. Until now, it has had the requirement of a “liability order” to hurdle which has required the delay and cost of an application to the Magistrates Court. Now the CMS can take this step internally. This seems to be a step in the right direction, provided it is managed with the right safeguards. Safeguards are needed because it is fine for there to be a swift passage to enforcement so that more children are supported. But the obligation being enforced has to be right.
In any administration there will be errors and delays. In our experience, non-payment can be more about misunderstanding a complex system or a dispute over the figures rather than a refusal to meet an obligation. Where draconian enforcement is rolled out too early that can make things worse for children as minimising child support then becomes the focus of the paying parent who feels wronged by this system.
It does not help that resolving disputes may involve a three year wait for the tribunal appeal to complete.
So this new law may well be a step forward but what is now desperately needed is for other parts of the service to catch up. This would involve the deployment of resources:
- First to ensure the wider range of children’s needs are met, so that parents are supported through separation to create the best possible transitions for their children with good arrangements for co-parenting (where safe) being put in place. The CMS could be a great sign-posting service to local parenting support resources but it has yet to take on this function.
- Secondly it must ensure that the right assessment is achieved, which will include a much faster appeal process.
- Thirdly a system is needed to put in place realistic interim arrangements whilst such processes are unrolling; and
- Fourthly we need a mediation/early neutral evaluation process in place so that parents are helped to work out settlement of these claims particularly in complex cases – this would remove burdens form the tribunal service and permit a faster focus on the truly stuck cases.
It would be lovely to look back in a year or so to see that the UK has a child support system that is closer to what it needs. Thirty years in the making already, it will have been a long time coming.
If you are looking for legal advice on your rights or obligations, please contact James Pirrie at Family Law in Partnership E: firstname.lastname@example.org or T: 020 7420 5000. James Pirrie is a director at Family Law in Partnership. He is a specialist in child maintenance and has previously appeared before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to talk about the practicality of the rules surrounding the Child Maintenance Service. In addition, you can take a look at our child support page below.