‘A roof over our heads and the bills being paid’; the humble expectations of single parent families

In the main, opinion within the legal community about the effectiveness of Schedule One of the Children Act (which governs the financial orders made upon the breakdown of relationships) is that it has served to make appropriate provision for the caring parent and the offspring of a relationship, be that marriage or cohabitation. In contrast, the Child Support Agency is considered by many to be failing single parent families, by not holding non-resident parents properly to account when they fail to pay.

Since the landmark case of White v White (2001) financial orders under the Children Act 1989 have tended to adopt, in the main, a sensible and broadly fair approach to ensuring that the parent with whom a child resides is not left struggling to cope once the relationship has broken down. In the main, orders ensure that a family home is maintained and that a regular income is provided, at least until the youngest child of the relationship reaches 18. It is perhaps particularly encouraging, given the proliferation of cohabitating relationships we are now seeing in our society, that the courts do not, when it comes to maintenance, differentiate between married couples and cohabiting couples. As Barrister David Burles has noted, there is an “unwillingness to allow second class financial provision in family breakdown for unmarried parents, at least for as long as there remain children requiring support.” Family and Appeal Court Judges are often to be found referring to their desire to see families well provided for; in the case of Re P (2003) Thorpe LJ observed that  “a more generous approach to the calculation of the mother’s allowance is not only permissible but also realistic”

So, while the orders that the courts make in relation to financial arrangements are met with approval, the body charged with making sure that payments actually reach single parents, The Child Support Agency, isn’t fairing as well. A recent piece in The Guardian indicates that in at least 40% of cases where a maintenance order is in place, the payments are not being made in full. There are at present over 850,000 families with financial orders of this kind in place, and so we are talking about a significant number of families not receiving the monies they are legally entitled to. Beyond this, the CSA is undergoing an overhaul, and has very recently become the Child Maintenance Service. It will now start charging for handling payments between separated parents. At this point, the number of people likely to switch to the Maintenance Direct’ option, where monies do not come via the agency, is likely to increase. Critics of the scheme, such as the single parent organisation Gingerbread, fear this will only make matters worse. Fiona Weir, Gingerbread’s Chief Executive, expresses her concerns thus;

“The DWP itself predicts that as more families set up direct payments, once the new child maintenance service starts charging to collect, only one in four (28%) of these arrangements will be paid in full and on time.”

In 2012, an article in The Telegraph stated “Official figures suggest children are fives time more likely to be poor if they are cared for by a single parent who does not work.” In a week where alarming figures about the number of British children who are living in low-income households below the poverty threshold have again been in the headlines, one cannot help conclude that something needs doing, and quick. It can be hard for single parents, very hard indeed, for them to access the world of work. However much they may not like it, maintenance payments and benefits often make up the majority of their income. Issues around financial orders that remain unpaid will undoubtedly be a feature in some of the families that make up this disturbing statistic. If our courts are doing their best to meet the needs of single parent families across the country, do not these same families deserve a better service from the government agency responsible for assisting them?