A shocking £4bn is owed to parents in child maintenance payments across the nation according to a charity for single parents called Gingerbread.
The organisation states that the average amount of unpaid maintenance is over £2,000 per family across the country. Around one million households may be affected including many in Milton Keynes, where outstanding maintenance payments total £6.26m - the fourth worst in the country after Normanton, Pontefract and Castleton.
In the Missing Maintenance Report, Gingerbread suggests that these debts were the result of the Child Support Agency doing less to enforce payments as they are now winding down. The charity claims that the Child Support Agency’s failure to collect outstanding child maintenance means that children are going without and single parents have been left poorer.
The Child Maintenance Service replaces the Child Support Agency and was set up to encourage parents to pay each other directly. However, nearly half of the families using the Child Maintenance Service are already experiencing maintenance arrears.
Bringing up children costs money and both parents have a responsibility to contribute financially. In fact, the payment of child maintenance is a legal obligation and the official policy confirms that the position is clear – parents who owe money for their children, whenever the debt arose, are still expected to pay it.
Fiona Weir, Gingerbread chief executive, said: “The Child Support Agency and its successor the Child Maintenance Service should be doing all they can to ensure that families get the financial support they are owed. They have many powers at their disposal but in reality both are slow to act when parents don't pay and single parents are left shouldering the costs of raising a child alone."
At Slater and Gordon we are often approached by parents experiencing difficulties with child maintenance, who wish to turn to the family courts for assistance. Family courts have limited jurisdiction in relation to child maintenance issues alone. However, for married parents splitting up an overall financial settlement upon separation, that includes provision for the children, can be considered as part of divorce proceedings. For unmarried parents a course of action could be available through a ‘Schedule 1’ application.
Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 enables unmarried parents to apply for financial provision for their children.
Schedule 1 applications provide many families with an alternate course of action to simply approaching the Child Maintenance Service when a dispute about child maintenance arises.
When deciding on a Schedule 1 application for child maintenance the court must look at all the circumstances of a case.
What Power Does The Court Have in Child Maintenance Issues
- The court has the power to order child support payments to ‘top-up’ maintenance where the payer's income exceeds the maximum maintenance assessment according to an assessment from the Child Maintenance Service.
- The court can also order lump sums or orders for the transfer and settlement of property.
- The court's power also extends to making orders for periodical payments and lump sum for children over the age of 18, in full time education, or where special circumstances apply for example if the child has a disability.
Kelly Willmott is a family law solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Milton Keynes.