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The Big Child Maintenance Squeeze

The BBC reports today that thousands of single parents are soon to receive a letter informing them of changes to the child maintenance system.  Anyone who relies on this system or has done in the past will know that change is by no means unusual for child maintenance guidelines.  The system is necessary and depended upon by so many, yet it is and has always been, riddled with problems as it tries to adapt to a changing society and economy.

As family lawyers we know from experience that every case is different.  Every case where child maintenance is an issue has its own set of circumstances and requirements that need to be taken into account.  Is it too much to expect one body, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), to operate a system that satisfies everybody?   Is it inevitable that in some cases the CMS is not going to work? To my mind, that is always going to be the risk.  The individual case is what matters and, whilst many will fit the CMS criteria well, others will not.

The latest change to CMS is an important one.  Under the new rules, if an amicable arrangement cannot be reached, the person paying child maintenance will incur a 20% fee, whilst the person receiving the money will incur a 4% fee.  In addition there will be a £20 fee to register with the CMS.  The incentive that the government hopes this will provide is for people to arrange child maintenance between themselves.  This is ultimately better for families as it will allow for all those unique and personal circumstances to be taken into account.  It is hoped that a decrease in the number of people using the CMS will ease pressure on resources creating an improved service.  The problems in the current system are, no doubt, due in part to being seriously underfunded.  The introduction of fees is designed to alleviate this.  It all sounds good on paper but there are some very real concerns.

What about the single parent, who through no fault of their own, cannot reach an agreement with the other parent?  Where broken families are concerned, emotions run high and trust between the parents is tested to the absolute limit.  It is these people who will be penalized for needing the CMS to intervene.  The CMS guidelines apply across the board but it is families with a lower income that will be hit the hardest.  Fiona Wier, chief executive of the charity Gingerbread, is concerned that the reforms may force parents into unsuitable or unstable maintenance agreements which ultimately will be to the detriment of the child.

As a family lawyer, I have often advised clients to attempt to arrange child maintenance between them without recourse to the CSA/CMS.  I anticipate that I will be giving that advice all the more frequently in the future, as it just may not be in the best financial interests of the family.

 21 May 2014