Parents who refuse to pay child maintenance could face curfews and prison sentences, as ministers plan new powers for the Child Maintenance Service
With one in every two parents still not receiving any financial support and the soaring cost of living, it seems changes to the way child maintenance is collected need to be made. We ask Newcastle solicitor Sarah Ward from Samuel Phillips Law to explain…
In news that broke earlier this month, plans have been revealed to give new powers to the Child Maintenance Service, with curfews among those new measures proposed for parents who fail to pay child maintenance.
With ministers very much still in the planning stages right now, the changes they are considering all revolve around a key area of contention: retrieving the money owed to the children of separated parents. Money, it seems, which is not currently being paid.
Tough new powers which could be imposed would see persistent non-paying parents put under a ‘lockdown style’ curfew, controlled by an electronic tag similar to those placed on prisoners, which would monitor their whereabouts and movements. If that doesn’t work, a prison sentence could also be imposed.
These proposals certainly have the shock factor, but what could the reality look like if these plans come into force? Would it really be a case of positive reform, or are these proposals merely an attempt at scaremongering in the hopes that the threat of failing to pay the child maintenance you owe is more effective than the punishment?
Now, we’re not for one minute suggesting that we know the answer to these questions. We just run a magazine, guys. But luckily, we do know someone who does – Sarah Ward, divorce and family law specialist and partner at Samuel Phillips Law, (who, you may remember, are High Life North’s legal Expert in Residence and one of the best law firms in Newcastle upon Tyne).
Which is why we dropped Sarah a line when the news of these proposals to overhaul the Child Maintenance Service broke: to understand why changes could, and possibly should, be made; how effective these changes could be if agreed upon; and what the impact of them could be on families across the North East and, indeed, the UK.
Take it away, Sarah…
So, what exactly are the new proposed measures for the Child Maintenance Service?
The Government has announced proposed new measures which would allow the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to impose home curfews on parents who owe arrears of child maintenance. The curfew would prevent the parent from leaving their home at certain times.
The CMS would firstly need to apply to the Court for a curfew order and then an electronic monitoring service would be responsible for making sure the parent complied with the curfew.
If the curfew is breached by more than 5 minutes, it will result in a call or warning letter being sent to the person by the monitoring service. If the person persistently breaches the curfew, then the court can either commit them to prison or extend the curfew order.
Why are ministers considering giving new powers to the CMS?
It’s now 10 years since the ‘disgraced’ Child Support Agency (CSA) was replaced by the CMS and billions of unpaid child maintenance arrears was written off.
The problem of unpaid maintenance is still a significant one. A staggering statistic of one in every two parents still do not receive any financial support from the non-resident parent. Now, with the soaring cost of living, it’s expected that more and more child maintenance will go unpaid.
The Government wants to strengthen the powers of the CMS to reduce the amount of unpaid maintenance.
What powers do the CMS currently have to deal with child maintenance arrears?
Where a paying parent has missed child maintenance payments, the CMS can recover the arrears by an attachment of earnings order. This requires the person’s employer to pay the monies direct to the CMS. Alternatively, the CMS can collect the arrears from the person’s benefits and/or the person’s bank account.
Where this is impossible or attempts are unsuccessful, the CMS can apply to the court for a liability order. This allows the CMS to arrange for bailiffs to take possessions from the parent’s home and sell them to pay the arrears. If the parent owns a home, the CMS can ask for an order that it is sold and that the proceeds are used to pay off the arrears of child maintenance.
If this doesn’t clear the arrears, the CMS can ask the court to consider taking away the parent’s driving licence or passport or sending them to prison. However, if they are committed to prison, then it disrupts the parent’s ability to pay maintenance and therefore is of no benefit to the children anyway.
Would curfews be an effective way to collect arrears of child maintenance and encourage parents to pay on time?
The rationale behind the introduction of a curfew is that it would encourage the defaulting parent to pay the arrears of child maintenance owed while also acting as a deterrent for paying parents not to fall into arrears.
A curfew would almost certainly restrict and disrupt a person’s lifestyle – for instance, by preventing them from socialising in the evening and going on holiday. I imagine that six months at home every night could be a powerful reality check for a parent to step up and meet their financial responsibilities towards their children.
More importantly, the introduction of the use of curfews would disrupt a parent’s lifestyle, rather than their earning capacity (as is the case with a prison sentence), and so wouldn’t impact their ability to pay maintenance.
If curfews are introduced and the introduction is well publicised in the media, they could be very effective in encouraging parents to pay arrears of maintenance and to pay maintenance on time.
Are there any disadvantages of the use of a curfew?
My initial response was: how much will this cost? However, it’s the intention that the non-paying parent will be responsible for meeting the cost of the electronic monitoring service.
My main reservation about imposing a curfew on a parent is the adverse impact this may have on that parent’s relationship with their children and their ability to care for the children. For example, if they are unable to leave home at set times then they may not be able to work around their own work schedule or the other parent’s schedule in order to spend time with their children. However, I trust this shall be considered as part of these proposals.
Do you think there are other sanctions that could be introduced which would be more effective?
My view is that simply giving the CMS more powers is not sufficient. The powers already given to the CMS should have been effective in reducing arrears of child maintenance. These powers including, more recently, the ability to confiscate a parent’s driver’s licence and passport. In my experience, the problem is that the CMS is too slow to take enforcement action. This leaves children without maintenance for far too long and allows arrears to build up, which then become unaffordable to the paying parent. The whole system needs reforming.
Who has to approve these proposed powers before they come into force?
Whether these new powers come into force remains to be seen. The consultation ends on 12th August, 2022. Depending upon the outcome of the consultation, and subject to Parliamentary timetables, the proposals will be put before Parliament for debate.
What can Samuel Phillips Law do to assist parents who are owed child maintenance?
Child maintenance can be a complex issue and dealing with the CMS is notoriously frustrating.
It’s important that the receiving parent understands what the options are where there are arrears of child maintenance. In most cases, it’s a matter of going through the process with the CMS. In other cases, the court may be able to assist.
Samuel Phillips Law can advise whether it is best to make an application to the court or leave things to the CMS. For both outcomes, it’s important that a parent seeks advice as early as possible.