Weekly Family Law Update August 4, 2021

Child support and legal aid

Old Child Support Agency cases continue to decline

The number of cases dealt with by the Child Support Agency has continued to decline, according to the latest statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Child Support Agency (‘CSA’) was set up in 1993 and in 2012 the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’) was created to replace the CSA. The closure of the CSA is progressing, all ongoing liabilities have ended, and the CSA IT systems have been closed down.

A small number of CSA cases remain which have historical debt built up under the CSA schemes. These remaining cases have been moved onto the CMS IT systems. This remaining debt is being addressed by offering a final chance at collection, where this is possible at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer

The statistics show that the number of CSA cases held on CMS IT systems decreased from 51,600 in December 2020 to 44,900 in March 2021. The caseload has been steadily declining since December 2014 and declining sharply since December 2018.

The CSA historical debt balance continues to reduce. The amount of CSA debt held on CMS IT systems has decreased from £348.8 million in December 2020 to £310 million in March 2021. The outstanding debt balance has been steadily declining since December 2016 and declining sharply since September 2018. Debt owed to the government and debt which has no reasonable chance of being collected is written off.

Legal aid needs urgent reform to secure fairness of the justice system

Legal aid is in urgent need of reform to protect the fairness of justice and to ensure that the most vulnerable can have access to justice, a report by the House of Commons Justice Committee has found.

The report warns that a rigid system of fixed fees and low pay is leaving firms specialising in legal aid struggling. The sustainability of legal aid providers is critical to ensure that those eligible for legal aid are able to be supported through what can be a complex and daunting system.

The Committee argues that early legal advice can help to make the courts operate more effectively. The legal aid system needs to be simplified to make it easier for those who eligible to access the services they require. Providers of civil legal aid are also facing sustainability issues, resulting in ‘legal aid deserts’ in certain areas, where people cannot access the specialist advice for certain issues.

The current legal aid means test may also be creating a barrier to justice for some of the most vulnerable in society and impacting the fairness of the justice system. The Government should consider changing the eligibility thresholds and regularly increase them in line with inflation.

Chair of the Justice Committee Sir Robert Neill MP said:

“In the last twenty years, efforts to reduce the cost of the legal aid bill have hollowed out key parts of the justice system. Fixed fees are failing to cover the cost of complex cases, the number of people receiving legal aid is falling and legal aid firms are struggling to keep going…

“This puts the fairness of the justice system at risk. We have called on the Government to ensure that the legal aid system provides an adequate level of funding to ensure that quality legal advice is available at the earliest opportunity for those in need of it…

“The legal aid system is there to ensure that everyone has access to justice. If the most vulnerable in society are being left to navigate the justice system on their own then fairness is lost and the system has failed.”