Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Law Society (CS 41)

KEY THEMES ON CHILD SUPPORT

  1.  The Society takes the view that the White Paper contains proposals that can be classified in two distinct categories: Social policy issues that cover the substance of the proposals for change, and due process issues that cover the role of the courts, representation and legal aid and civil liberties issues arising from the use of draconian sanctions.

WHAT THE SOCIETY IS PLEASED ABOUT

  2.  The Society welcomes Government recognition that the current child support system has not been working effectively.

  3.  The Society welcomes the proposals to create a more efficient and easily understandable child support system. The proposals to simplify the formula will make the assessment process easier to understand generally.

  4.  The £10 disregard for resident parents. This will mean that resident parents will be better off under the new system and genuinely have an incentive to co-operate.

CONCERNS

General

  5.  A fixed formula with no departures procedure will result in injustice for many because individual circumstances cannot be taken into account.

  6.  Those on low incomes will pay disproportionately because the full percentage rate will apply over all net earnings of over £200. The lack of any cap on maintenance will mean that very high assessments could be made regardless of the needs of the children.

  7.  The disregard of the resident parent's income will lead to unfairness and anomalies.

The Courts

  8.  The Society does not agree with the assumption that the courts are not the appropriate arena for assessing child support.

  9.  In fact the courts would be able to assess child support awards in a way that could take into account individual circumstances. The courts are able to exercise discretion and consider child support as part of any other family proceedings. This would further the move towards a single forum for dealing with all issues affecting a family, as envisaged by the Children Act. This system would support the principles of clean break settlements in ancillary relief proceedings.

  10.  Following major reforms of the civil justice system, the court system would provide an efficient, cost effective method of assessing and enforcing child support. Appeals could also be heard in courts, and legal aid would be available for this.

  11.  The court system would be able to collect child support at very little extra cost. For the year 1998-99, the operation costs for the CSA were £231.174 million. The agency collected £253.194 million. Total debts currently stand at £801.33 million.

  12.  The Society is concerned that there are provisions to opt in to the system, but it is unclear whether people can opt out. Proposals to separate the non benefit cases heard in the courts from CSA cases (benefit cases) will create a two tier system, one for the rich and one for the poor.

  13.  Parents should continue to have the right to make voluntary arrangements on relationship breakdown.

LEGAL AID

  14.  The Society believes that the courts should be involved in hearing appeals of decisions made by the CSA. If this provision is not made, legal aid should be available for representation at the new unified tribunal service. The Society believes there must be access to legal advice and representation, as decisions made by the agency will greatly impact on people's lives.

CIVIL LIBERTIES

  15.  The Society believes that the introduction of a new criminal offence and confiscation of passports or driving licences for non-payment of maintenance to be wholly unsuitable for this type of default. Civil debts should be enforced by civil sanctions. The punishment should be proportionate to the offence.

September 1999


 
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Prepared 19 October 1999