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  • John Pratley

CSA – RIP



On the 20 February 2019 the DWP published its latest “Child Support Agency quarterly summary of statistics” with data to December 2018. It records another key stage in the CSA’s journey to the grave.


In 2018 the CSA collected £11 million of ongoing maintenance, and £18 million of arrears. But in December it 2018 stopped collecting ongoing maintenance, so its function became purely to collect arrears on the old assessments. Bearing in mind that the CSA effectively stopped making maintenance assessments in 2012, when it was replaced by (or re-badged as) the CMS (“Child Maintenance Service”) most of these assessments have been around a long time.


I am old enough to remember when the CSA was set up in 1993. There was, for all practical purposes, no consultation process, just a ‘roadshow ‘ to go to. And if anyone did a viability study it must have been hopelessly flawed.


IT was in its infancy, only geeks owned computers. When I signed on as an articled clerk (that shows my age) about three years earlier, the secretaries had electric typewriters – the firm I was articled to considered itself very much ahead of the game, because they had the golf ball type which could store about half a line of text before printing it out. In the basement a dedicated “word processing” team sat around a huge computer with one printer, carefully protected by a huge Perspex case from dust and a thousand other things which caused it to malfunction several times a day. By 1993 the secretaries had been equipped with computers which could be used for word processing, but we as solicitors did not get computers or screens on our desks for several years to come.


So, the firm where I was working as a rookie solicitor invested in a handheld gadget manufactured by Psion ( perhaps they are now collectable) onto which someone had loaded a piece of software with CSA formula. The family law team sat around the large antique table in the partners’ boardroom to hear an explanation of the new formula, and the Psion was passed around, and each of us could, in turn, solemnly entered one piece of data to take us through the worked example which needed about 20 pieces of information about each parent’s financial circumstances. The Psion creaked but it could cope, just, with one calculation at a time. No wonder the CSA ‘experienced problems with its computer systems’ in the early days.


Before this all child maintenance was dealt with by the courts, and the task of trying to collect it fell to solicitors and beleaguered court staff, already decimated by government cutbacks. It wasn’t glamorous work, your chances of success were pretty low, and obviously none of the clients had any money, so it tended to get passed down to newly qualified solicitors like me. There was no formula and little guidance - the judge had to pick a number, and I had to try to collect it.


I think the criticism at the time must have been that the maintenance orders were set too low - because the figures are churned out by the Psion seem to be higher than we would have expected a judge to direct - and also that we weren’t very good at collecting the money.

Both of those points have something to them, but the underlying reason was that collecting the money was incredibly difficult. First you had to find your payer (not easy if he didn’t want to pay) and then you had to try to get the money out of him. Your best shot was probably an “attachment of earnings order” by which the money could be deducted direct from his wages. But it took months to get one, and more often than not as soon as he saw his reduced wage packet he just changed jobs, which sent you straight back to square one. And it was useless against the self-employed who didn’t have a wage to deduct from. The best thing you could do was to get the order transferred to the magistrates’ court, because the magistrates were much more willing to apply the ultimate sanction, and throw your non paying target into jail. It is difficult to pay maintenance from a prison, but it brought grim satisfaction and sometimes the idea acted as a deterrent. Nevertheless I think some judges, pragmatically, realised that was better to set maintenance at a relatively low level, which the payer might conceivably choose to pay, than to aim high and get nothing.


So the idea that CSA would do a better job was obviously wrong, or that its staff, freshly recruited to its headquarters in Plymouth (at the time mired in the last recession but one, so a good place to rent cheap premises and recruit under paid workers) would make a better fist of it than we had . Even the most cooperative payers struggled to provide all the data the CSA needed, so the formula was a charter for avoidance and delay, particularly for the self-employed. So the CSA staff seemed to put them at the bottom of the pile and concentrate on the easy pickings - law-abiding folk in steady jobs who were willing and therefore most likely to pay. You can’t blame them – they probably had targets to meet – but, it was not in the spirit of the thing and perversely incentivised non compliance. Soon the arrears began to build up, and the CSA quickly became an administrative nightmare and a political embarrassment.


It took 10 years to introduce the 2003 scheme, which at least simplified the formula to a level where most people could work out how much they - or the father of their children - should be paying, without a special computer program, but the scheme was still unworkable. At the last reckoning the government said the CSA’s arrears stood at £3.7 bn – yes £3.7 billion – of which £3.1bn is designated ‘un-collectable’.


Finally, in 2012, we got a new scheme and a new department (the CMS) to administer it. Essentially it uses data which individuals already have to supply to the tax man, and encourages parents to sort it out themselves by imposing financial penalties if they don’t. Of course, with a bit of thought that is where we might have started from but hindsight is a great thing. The scheme is not perfect, but it stands a chance.


When the CSA is finally committed to the grave, few will attend the funeral, like the mourners at the graveside of a well intentioned but hopelessly flawed alcoholic.


John Pratley is an expert divorce lawyer, who has more than 25 years experience advising clients purely about divorce and related family law issues, such as the financial consequences of separating and divorcing. After establishing the first niche family law practice in Bristol, and going on to senior management roles in a national firm, John set up Apple Tree Family Law in 2018. Apple tree family Law solicitors specialise in advice about divorce and financial issues.


We are based in Bristol and Exeter, but we have clients all over the UK and further afield. We offer, simply, clear and accurate advice about divorce and family law issues, and the very best client service, for a clear and reasonable price.


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