Family Law - The Child Support Agency

Prior to the creation of the Child Support Agency (CSA), a high level of discretion was used in determining maintenance payments. The Courts applied each situation on a case by case basis. But this proved far from ideal, particularly when the non-resident parent (NRP) fell into arrears. In such situations it was often the case that a Court would write-off the arrears, rather than force the NRP to repay it, as the NRP could claim that he or she would be unable to make the payments and that it was too much of a burden on the NRP.

The Government then introduced the 1990 White Paper, entitled "Children Come First", where the deficiencies of the Court-based system was highlighted. As a result, the Child Support Act 1991 was introduced to create a new method of assessing adequate maintenance payments for children and of enforcing such payments. The 1991 Act transferred child maintenance from a judicial system to an administrative one. It was here that the Child Support Agency was created. The CSA would be headed by a director and staffed by Child Support Officers (CSO).

The task of the CSOs was to assess child maintenance based on information provided on a form that was more than twenty pages long. This obviously took a great deal of their time. Matters were also not helped by a convoluted and extremely complicated mathematical formula they were expected to use in determining how much maintenance each NRP was expected to pay. One anomaly within the system, which remains to this day, was the insistence that the resident parent were obliged to provide details of the NRP's whereabouts to the CSA if the resident parent was in receipt of state benefits, such as Income Support.

The only exception to this rule is where revealing the NRP's whereabouts could put the resident parent at risk. On the face of it there is little that would be gained from such a measure. The resident parent receives none of that money until he/she begins working. It would appear therefore that it was recognised by the Government that it could provide a method of recouping some of the state benefits being paid out to lone parents. Middle class families on a reasonable income need not deal with the CSA.

Maintenance could be calculated by their solicitors and agreed privately between the two sides. The formula originally used by the CSA did prove to be a major mistake. There were a number of well-publicised cases of people being driven to suicide by unreasonable calculations being made by the CSA of their expected maintenance obligations1. Calculations often included arrears as it could take up to nine months for the CSA to make an assessment. No account was taken of any new obligations by the paying parent as the main emphasis was on the first families.

At the time, there was little sense of accountability within the CSA. There were constant denials that the CSA were responsible for these suicides. However, there seemed to be greater acceptance of at least that possibility within the Government with one Conservative MP admitting that "the whole CSA episode has been a nightmare for us. I'd hate to fight the next election with the CSA in its present shape. "2 The 1995 Child Support Act sought to redress some of these concerns by adding a little more flexibility to a CSO's arsenal.

Such amendments included taking into account previous private agreements between the parties and moving the emphasis from first families to a NRP's new family. This was done by allowing the CSA to take into account an NRP's new family commitments upon re-marriage when calculating maintenance for the old family. But have matters improved much over recent years? Despite the changes that have been introduced, seemingly not. Reports have still continued over problems made worse by the CSA.

One example was an incident in 2003 involving a man who made a failed attempt at suicide and then assaulted his estranged wife and several neighbours before he was finally subdued. The reason being that the CSA had written to him stating that his maintenance had been reassessed and that he was now expected to pay nearly 40% of his wages. 3 Past articles outlining problems with the CSA are not exactly difficult to find. Two minutes of research unearthed over 400 newspaper articles alone.

And these were only those that made some reference to suicide. The vast majority of these articles paint a very bleak picture. But considering the changes introduced by the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, which greatly simplified the maintenance formula, it is surprising that the CSA still has not got a grip on itself. It must be noted that not all the problems the CSA has experienced over recent years has been of its own making, despite the attempts of its critics to point the finger of blame towards it4.

Certainly, it could be argued that its initial 'teething problems' were also not of its making but rather those of woolly-thinking politicians who failed to think matters through properly before steamrolling the CSA into being. However, as a large organisation with a heavy workload it has been accused at various times of losing files and correspondence, as well as ignoring or misunderstanding information it was given. Current estimates as to its effectiveness, or lack of, do nothing to help its cause. It is estimated that the CSA is currently owed more than i?? 1billion in child maintenance.

Uncollected maintenance stands at i?? 500 million with a further i?? 500 million having been written off as being uncollectible. A third of the calculations contained mistakes (although quite how this is now possible due to the simplified calculations that could be performed by an untrained chimp) and 47,000 parents have been waiting for more than a year for their first assessment. ii) There seems still some room for improvement in relation to maintenance payments for children. It is somewhat ironic that the reforms begun by the 1991 Act are themselves seen by many to require reform.

An issue that has crept up on more than one occasion is the small matter of the involvement of the CSA making matters between two separated parents worse. It is doubly unfortunate where the two parents are on good terms. Whilst this is not a problem with those resident parents who work, where they can choose whether or not to involve the CSA, it can cause immense difficulty where the parent is on benefit and feels pressurised into giving up their former partner's details against their will. This can cause a great deal of resentment and a sense of betrayal within the NRP.

Of course, more often than not this leads to bitterness and regular, often heated, arguments - often in full view of the child, which is obviously unhelpful to that child's psychological wellbeing. On that basis it seems that the insistence that those parents on benefit pass relevant details to the CSA, purely to satisfy the treasury, is counter-productive and should be repealed - particularly in the light of the wording of the title of that first Government white paper. There also needs to be some organisational changes to the CSA.

It beggars belief that, following the acquisition of the new computer system and the fact that the CSA has over 10,000 employees that the Agency still has so many difficulties in meeting its obligations. At present each applicant is provided with their own case worker. But it has been shown to be a highly inefficient method of distributing cases, particularly when an applicant later seeks to contact the CSA by telephone with waits of an hour commonplace while they wait for their case worker to become available. That is surely an inefficient use of manpower and it must be considered amazing that such a system is in use at all.

Any reform in the provisions for child support should start with the wholesale restructuring the CSA.

Bibliography Hasson, E. , Setting a Standard or Reflecting Reality? The 'Role' of Divorce Law, and the case of the Family Law Act 1996. IJLP&F 2003. 17(338) K. Gill. They All Killed Themselves After a Visit from the Supersnoopers. Daily Record. 23rd March 1994. Anon. Raging Dad Attacks Wife. This is Lancashire. 29th October 2003. S. Womack. Crisis Looms at CSA as 456m computer fails. The Daily Telegraph. 3rd July 2003.