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Quarrelling parents charged to use new Child Maintenance Service, writes family law expert Mark Heptinstall

It’s no secret that the Child Support Agency (CSA) had become a notoriously troubled public agency.  Yet news in July last year that the CSA would gradually be replaced by the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) was met with widespread concern, due to plans to charge parents who are forced to use the service.

A public consultation ‘Supporting separated families; securing children’s futures’ resulted in a government response published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in December 2013, shortly after the CMS started processing new cases at the end of November.

The DWP confirmed that, on the basis that the CMS continues to operate effectively, under the Child Support (Fees) Regulations 2014 charges will be made for the services provided by the CMS, from the end of March 2014.  Charges will apply both to the non-payer and, more controversially, for any parent seeking help from the CMS with non-payment of child maintenance.

A fee of £20 will be required to start the process; if after the initial maintenance assessment the CMS is required to collect the maintenance and ensure payment is made, a further ‘collection charge’ will apply to both the paying parent, and the receiving parent.  The payer will pay to the CMS an extra 20% of the total paid, and the payee will pay 4% of the total amount received.  The CMS will therefore receive 24% of the amount of child maintenance paid via their collection service.

Initially the proposed charges were higher for the parent seeking to enforce payment of child maintenance; £100 for the initial application fee, and somewhere between 7% and 15% of the maintenance received by way of ‘collection service’.  Organisations such as Gingerbread have worked hard on behalf of single-parent, low-income families to reduce the charges, but remain concerned about the impact that even the more modest charges will have on the poorest households, particularly those unable to afford the initial £20 application fee.

I can see the benefit in clawing back some of the costs of running the statutory scheme, and charging a fee to the parents who would not otherwise pay any child maintenance. Charging the parents with care of children for making an application however, when they are often in a desperate financial situation, seems wrong; whilst imposing a further collection charge on those parents, however modest, cannot be right.  After all, the charge effectively penalises the children who are intended to benefit from often much-needed financial support.

The purpose of these fees and charges is clearly to dissuade families from using the service unless absolutely necessary, and the emphasis is on establishing a ‘Direct Pay’ arrangement cutting out the need for third party intervention.  In my view however the charge to be imposed on parents with care is surely a step too far.

For further advice on child maintenance law or family matters please contact the family team on 0161 969 3131 or at intouch@slaterheelis.co.uk and follow us @slaterheelislaw.