Ministers outline their hopes for child maintenance reform

Family law professionals have been busy digesting proposals, put forward by the Government, which aim to bolster the powers available to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

Efforts to modernise the system for collecting maintenance payments have been ongoing since 2012 and ministers have now set out a number of new changes that they argue will “further strengthen” the statutory framework.

In a foreword to a consultation document, published earlier this month, the Department for Work and Pensions identified two priorities in particular.

Firstly they want to ensure that those with complicated earnings have a fair maintenance assessment and secondly they will take further steps to see that those parents who attempt to evade financial obligations are brought to book.

One of the tough new sanctions that could be placed at the CMS’s disposal would be the ability to remove the passports of parents who persistently fail to pay the money they owe.

Officials could also be given the right to seize funds from sole trader or partnership accounts in order to cover outstanding sums.

In addition, the consultation sets out proposals to address “historic arrears” which date back to the time of the CMS’s predecessor, the Child Support Agency.

The Department acknowledges that there are many cases that have been left “in limbo” for a period of some years.

“In many of these cases the children are now adults themselves; the debt amounts are often small; and in some cases, when asked, parents have moved on with their lives and are not interested in pursuing this debt,” said the report.

“We propose to offer parents to whom the debt is owed, a final chance to ask us to consider taking action to collect this debt, where this is likely to be possible at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer. This would enable these cases to be finally closed in the next few years.”

Graeme Fraser, Family Partner at OGR Stock Denton, said: “It is welcome that the Government is continuing to keep the issue of child maintenance assessment and enforcement high up on the political agenda, as that shows an intent to protect the children of divorcing and separating families,  who are often the most vulnerable and affected by relationship breakdown. However, research suggests that private agreements reached between parents are likely to be more effective rather than being imposed. Taking early legal advice from family specialist legal professionals is sensible. Using an experienced family mediator is a good way to achieve agreement between a couple which they both feel is fair for the children involved.”

The consultation will close on 8 February 2018.

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