When parents separate, the needs of their children are supposed to be always put front and centre. Sadly, this is not always the case.

How has child maintenance been impacted by Covid19?

When parents separate, the needs of their children are supposed to be always put front and centre. Sadly, this is not always the case.

There may be little the custodial parent can do about an ex-partner’s lack of emotional engagement with their children. There should, however, be a lot they can do about failure to pay child support. Unfortunately, this is not always the case either.

The realities of child maintenance

In theory, if the non-custodial parent does not fulfil their obligations to their child, the custodial parent has two options. Firstly, they can bring a civil lawsuit. Secondly, they can refer the matter to the Child Maintenance Service. In practice, bringing a civil lawsuit is expensive. What’s more, even if the custodial parent wins their case, they still need to deal with the practicalities of enforcing the judgement.

This leaves the CMS. As a government agency, its services are free at the point of use. It also has a wide range of powers to enforce compliance. These include the ability to garnish a person’s wages, take money from their bank account or even take them to court.

However, the CMS is showing every sign of suffering from exactly the same failings as its predecessors, the CSA and CMEC.

A brief history of child maintenance and the law

Up until the 1980s, the issue of child maintenance was largely resolved between the parents themselves. In the 1980s, however, the number of single-parent families claiming benefits caused the government to take an interest in the matter.

This ultimately led to The Child Support Act 1991 and the creation of the Child Support Agency. The Child Support Agency then became the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission which then became the modern Child Maintenance Service.

All three agencies had the same task, enforcing child maintenance payments. All three agencies have, however, received much the same criticism over their approach to doing so.

The CSA, CMEC and the CMS have all been called out for their tendency to go after “soft targets”. In other words, they focus their efforts on parents who only need minimal persuasion to pay up. As a result, relatively few custodial parents find it any practical use. In fact, the CMS’ service has received such as poor review that four single mothers and the charity Gingerbread are now seeking a judicial review of its (lack of) actions.

That’s not to say that the work the Child Maintenance Service do doesn’t benefit children, because they certainly do, by ensuring that child maintenance is paid on time, to avoid children living in poverty.

As per Gov.uk there are currently 749,500 children who are covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements, 7,200 of these children are not yet assigned to a service and overall, the number of children covered by the Child Maintenance service has increase by 15,900 since the previous quarter and has steadily increased over the past couple of year.

The pandemic has made it increasingly harder for parents to pay towards child maintenance and as of September 2020, only 72% of all Paying Parents, paid towards their child maintenance.

The CMS and COVID-19

The current pandemic situation has created a vicious circle for custodial parents with non-cooperative ex-partners. Currently, single parents need more help than ever before.

Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 means that they may be even less likely to get the help they need. In some cases, this is because their exes legitimately cannot afford to pay. In others, however, it is because their exes choose not to pay.

Due to rising numbers of absent parents being unable to pay towards child support, ministers have recent written off £1.92billion which is owed, although the loss could be significantly higher.

This devastating loss sadly means that many parents – mostly mothers, have missed out on an average of over £2,500 each. A fair sum to lose out on, never mind during a pandemic.

Could this have been an opportunity for the CMS to step in? Could there have been an option to work out which non-custodial parents are unable to pay and which are simply unwilling to pay. They should then be formally writing off what is owed by the former while actively pursuing what is owed by the latter.

The unfortunate reality should a parent be unable to pay, is the CMS can enforce payments, which can be devastating to some parents if simply don’t have enough money to pay for everything. Which has resulted in the debt being scrapped altogether.

However, when the CMS do get involved, there can be a light at the end of the tunnel for some single parents, as it was reported that two mothers received a payment of £40,000 each when fathers were pressed and forced sale orders were placed.

The pandemic may have had one positive outcome for the Child Maintenance process and that’s by forcing a lot of the paperwork to become digital. Many businesses, not just the CMS have had to step outside the box and turn their services online. As a result, more people have actually used the CMS as it has become much easier to sign up and access

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