20th Aug 2021

Where Did It Go Wrong With Child Support?

By James Pirrie

Where Did It Go Wrong With Child Support?

FLiP Director James Pirrie looks at the child support system following a devastating news report, and what can be done to improve the system as a whole. 

The reminders in our press (see here) of Emma Day, killed for pursuing child support from her ex is more than enough to send most of us back to bed to curl up under the duvet in despair.  Poor woman.  Poor family.  How come after all the hours so many of us have spent trying to improve the system that it – and we – are still in such trouble?

I have been tracking child support since 1991 when the scheme was first hatched, for the best of reasons, seeking to create some consistency across the country and also ensure that payments start to be made at a realistic level.  In answering my question, I am reminded of one ministerial meeting when a solicitor colleague said (in words) “you have not taken on board one thing we have said – in all of our meetings , we are still telling you how to improve and you are still not listening.”

But one thing making improvement hard so hard is that users of the scheme are so diverse:

  • For Emma it was centrally about realistic provision but above all about safety – for many others like her it remains as such.
  • For some it is about the snail-like progress of their case through the tribunal system (three years is not unusual), during which time impoverished child-hoods unroll.
  • For others it is about unrealistically high payments and draconian enforcement action because of some metric or another that is engaged.  Outlying scenarios have always generated …

Speak to most users of the scheme and they will have a different story to tell and problem to highlight.

The reality of our child support system seems to be:

  • There will never be one perfect step to correct it, because the system is an umbrella over myriad-diverse family systems and stories;
  • The system has been designed to stand alone but its failure to integrate with other aspects (child care / financial provision / domestic abuse) it will often see parties flailing about seeking to extract from it a justice that it is not equipped to provide;
  • It has fixed rules for everything, and each lobby that generates change (yes sometimes change does happen) creates greater complexity thus alienating more of the people using the system and each change creates a new raft of winners and losers.

This system was built around a formula, diverse families required increasing sub-formulae – what we suggest may help is:

  • First a focus on children and safety: Children need a relationship with each parent where safe – the CMS could integrate with an information-giving system that authentically seeks to build constructive, co-operative co-parenting, where appropriate, focused on the needs of each child.
  • Excluding the CMS from cases that are using court anyway: currently this is simply pointless duplication at great expense: this is one reform that at a step could chop out of the workload of the system some of its most technical and challenging cases.  It would enable the CMS to focus resources and spend real effort on those cases where safety is a real issue.
  • Realistic funding of an overworked agency: for too long there has been a drive to simplify the scheme and then cut back the funding of the service accordingly.  As a nation, we need to own that we must invest in a scheme that can deliver good outcomes so that there we can free ourselves from ever having to read a story like Emma’s in the future.  At least that tragedy might not be completely in vain.

The consultation on improvements closed on the 6th August and we await hearing from the DWP with its conclusions.

If you are looking for legal advice on your rights or obligations, please contact James Pirrie at Family Law in Partnership E: hello@flip.co.uk 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.