Financial Abuse through Miscalculated or Delayed Child Maintenance Service Payments
What is the Child Maintenance Service?
Upon its rebranding from the Child Support Agency to the Child Maintenance Service ("CMS") in 2012, the primary objective was to provide assurance to separated parents that the non-resident parent would fulfil their financial obligations towards their children.
The CMS determines the amount owed by the non-resident parent based on their salary and the number of nights the children spend with them. Payment arrangements can occur directly between parents (Direct Pay) or through the CMS, which collects and manages payments on behalf of the parents.
Criticism has arisen regarding the management and calculation methods of the CMS. For instance, in cases where a non-resident parent is self-employed, the CMS considers only the declared income from the most recent tax year, calculating average weekly earnings. Concerns have been raised that the calculated amounts may not adequately cover the expenses associated with raising a child. Instances are encountered where non-resident parents may not accurately report their income, resulting in minimal or no payments.
Contrary to some opinions, child maintenance encompasses various expenses, including extracurricular activities, school necessities, groceries, utility bills, and mortgage payments—essentially covering all aspects essential for a child's well-being.
While child maintenance payments extend across families regardless of their financial status, concerns arise in cases involving victims of domestic abuse. The Domestic Abuse Act, enacted on April 30, 2021, criminalised coercive behaviour, including financial abuse, which can persist post-separation. In situations where victims remain financially dependent on their abusers, the legal obligation for child maintenance continues. Unfortunately, perpetrators may exert control by refusing to make payments, causing further financial hardship for the victim and children
A recent judicial review (case of R (On the Application of Ingold & Ors) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC 3207 (Admin) ) brought before the High Court involved four single mothers challenging delays and inefficiencies in their maintenance payments, resulting in significant financial losses. Despite claims of financial hardship constituting a form of coercive behaviour, the High Court deemed the delays and missed payments attributable to occasional mistakes rather than unlawful actions.
This was despite Mr Justice Calver stating:
“[I]f it could be shown on the facts of a particular case that the State knew or ought to have known that a [non-resident parent] was using the CMS Scheme in order to inflict domestic economic abuse upon his victim which the State could prevent, then the State might indeed have a positive duty to take reasonable steps to ensure the victim’s effective protection from that economic abuse.
“Whether a positive obligation under Article 8 to take reasonable steps to protect a victim of domestic abuse exists in any case, and the scope of that duty, will crucially depend upon the facts of the case, which will include whether there is a real and immediate risk of economic abuse to the claimant and the severity of the harm that the claimant is suffering or likely to suffer. In Levchuk it was immediate and serious physical violence.”
This ruling has raised concerns about the vulnerability of victims of domestic abuse, as it seemingly deviates from the spirit of the Domestic Abuse Act. Despite disappointment expressed by organisations such as Women's Aid, the High Court concluded that occasional mistakes were inevitable, making it challenging to hold the CMS accountable.
Statistics from the Office for National Statistics estimate that 2.1 million people aged 16 and over, comprising 1.4 million women and 751,000 men, experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2023. These figures underscore the potential impact of delays in child maintenance payments on affected families.
The judgment prompted calls from advocacy groups for the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Child Maintenance Service fulfils its obligation to protect survivors from economic abuse. With limited options for vulnerable families, the ramifications of delayed payments extend beyond financial hardship, affecting the overall well-being of those involved.
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