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Divorce law blog

Government to overhaul child maintenance system

13/01/2011   By: Nicola Rowlings

Families Minister, Maria Miller, has confirmed that the government are looking to overhaul the child maintenance system in what will be the biggest change in this area of family breakdown for over a decade.

Arguing that the current system only serves to fuel conflict between parents, Maria Miller was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying:

"We know that if effective financial arrangements are in place, those parents are much more likely to stay in contact and much more likely to have a strong relationship with their children. Staying in contact with both parents is absolutely critical to give a child the best start in life."

The proposals - which are subject to consultation - seek to encourage separating parents to work out their own financial settlement for the children. Some parents will get free advice from voluntary and charitable bodies on the options available to them before deciding whether to reach an independent settlement or opt to use the statutory service, which will be overseen by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, the successor to the much maligned Child Support Agency. Whilst it is intended that this new approach will encourage greater parental responsibility and is to work in tandem with other efforts to provide more counselling on relationship and financial matters, the most controversial aspect of the proposals is that those who either need or insist on using the statutory service will have to pay a one-off application fee - £100 for those in work, £50 for those on benefits and £20 for those in the most acute financial need. Officials have been quick to dispel rumours that the introduction of the charges - which will not apply to cases involving domestic violence - has not been driven by the need to make savings across the public sector.

Nicholas Cusworth, vice-chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, speaking on Radio 4's Today programme today said that the state-sponsored CSA model for arranging child maintenance had not worked, and that anything which encouraged separating parents to agree terms between themselves would be "a thoroughly good thing". However, he warned that the cost of the new system would hit the poorest parents who did not have assets to divide, and would especially affect mothers who were unable to contact the fathers of their children:

"It will hit the poor, because where a mother is unable to contact a father or where any agreement between her and the father may still leave the mother reliant on benefits, in those circumstances there will still be need for recourse to the Government scheme and in those circumstances there will be a charge. Scrapping the scheme and starting again is a thoroughly good idea. Charging everyone who uses the scheme - unless there is domestic violence - is not such a good idea."

The child maintenance system has long been criticised for being inefficient and failing to support parents most in need. The Child Support Agency was effectively axed in 2008 when it was rolled into a new body - the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. Ministers say there is currently a £4bn arrears in maintenance payments from non-resident parents while less than half of the 3.5 million children whose parents are separated are adequately supported. The child maintenance system currently costs £460million a year to administer.

Statistics show that one in five children from a broken home loses touch with a parent within three years and never sees them again, while many more lose contact as they grow older.

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