29th Jun 2020

Unpaid Child Maintenance – What can be done?

By James Pirrie

Child Support – the same sad old story

Following the recent report of claims being made against the DWP for unpaid child maintenance, Family Law in Partnership Director James Pirrie examines how effectively the Child Maintenance Scheme is running.

Legal action against the CMS:

There is news this week of four parents judicially reviewing the Child Maintenance Service (which arranges for the collection of child maintenance and with power to enforce it), for its failure to take appropriate action in their cases.

One has to question why this situation could be allowed to occur, when the CMS has the power:

  • to deduct payments at source from the salary packages of those due to pay it;
  • to identify, freeze and take monies in a bank account or building society account; and
  • to obtain court permission to send in the bailiffs, charge property, apply for sales of those properties, remove driving licences or passports and ultimately send a defaulting payer to prison.

The workload of the CMS:

Well, we have the latest stats up to March 2020, suggesting that the CMS (or child maintenance options, the gateway service) has helped arrangements relating to 471,700 children, whilst the CMS actually manages the collection and payment arrangements for a further 261,000 children.  Cases are now being opened at a rate of just under 20,000 per quarter.

Just focusing on the collect and pay cohort, this is 261,000 children across 148,200 cases.  These are the parents paying 20% on top of the award for being within the service (whilst the recipient pays a handling charge of 4%).  We always expected high compliance within this scheme, a combination:

  • of the desperation of parties to exit what is little more than a fines regime on the one hand; and
  • a highly effective enforcement policy on the other.

Accumulating debt:

However, looking further through the CMS statistics:


we see that:

  • compliance is at only 68%;
  • but that doesn’t really tell the full story as a case counts as compliant provided that some payment has been made towards the debt in the quarter being reported;
  • 48,000 of those cases involved no payment at all;
  • in financial terms just in this quarter (pre lockdown remember) £19.3m out of £64.5m went unpaid;
  • or if one thought of the unpaid child support as children going without breakfast cereal, then the line of undelivered Weetabix would reach to Australia.

Failure of funding … failure of enforcement:

This is a tragic failure to deliver by the Department of Work and Pensions’ agency, the Child Maintenance Service.  This latest iteration of the public service went live in 2012 on a promise of blisteringly effective enforcement, because the service would be able to shed the bulk of its work (The 471,700 notionally compliant arrangements formerly clogged up the administration but now do not trouble the service at all).  The result was intended to be a service that could focus upon the difficult cases.

Government has clearly not delivered on its promise to enable it to do so by endowing the service with the resources to get the job done; the latest tables tell us that in England & Wales there have been this quarter only:

  • 67 suspended prison sentences;
  • 2 suspended driving disqualifications; and
  • 3 actual imprisonments.

This is clearly not going to drive home the message that child maintenance must be paid on time in full all the time until changed by the CMS administration.

Of course some assessments are wrong but that just means that we need the administration to put them right to build confidence among paying parents as well that they will be listened to and mistakes corrected.  The CMS should be funded for this most important of tasks to be managed.

Sadly, the UK has more priorities than it can shake a stick at right now and we should not hold our breath that the service is going to be able to perfect its caseload any more than it is going to ensure payment of what is due across its client-base.

Plus ca change?

The £19.3m unpaid between 1st Jan and the end of March is part of a debt that has built to £354m since the scheme started in 2012.  Those of us who have lived and breathed this system since it went live in April 1993 recall only too well the total debt under the predecessor scheme of £3.8b by the time that it finally closed… enough to create a veritable breakfast broadwalk to Australia, 196 Weetabix wide.

We can only hope that we are not headed in this direction but the current proceedings seem sharply similar to another pioneer – under the old scheme Mrs Keyhoe who visited the House of Lords in 2003 and did not seem able to change habits then any more than is likely now.

Clarity as to what you need to do and then strategy and persistence to get your case to the top of the pile is almost certainly the best that you can do right now.

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.

For more information on when and for how long child maintenance payments can be paid, visit our dedicated website page or contact James Pirrie at E: jp@flip.co.uk or T: 020 7420 5000.