London, England–Child support enforcement agencies with broad powers and little judicial oversight enforcing error-riddled orders–sound familiar?
From Joe Willis’ new column Dads – the new terrorists? (The Northern Echo, 6/2/08):
It could almost be anti-terror legislation – the power to take money from bank accounts without consent and without a court order, the power to freeze accounts, seize the proceeds of house sales, impose curfews, and confiscate passports and driving licences.
However, this is not a new law to help MI5 tackle extremism. The powers are contained within the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill and have been designed to help the authorities recover money from non-resident parents – usually fathers – owed for their children’s upkeep.
The Government announced a major overhaul of the child maintenance system last year and the legislation is currently working its way through Parliament and could be given Royal Assent within weeks. The bill will see the much-maligned Child Support Agency (CSA) replaced with a new more powerful body, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-MEC).
Few people would question the need to abolish the CSA, which has been dogged by controversy and complaints ever since its launch in 1993. However, a leading North-East solicitor has warned the extent of the powers due to be handed to the new commission will only increase the heartache for separating families – and lead to even greater confrontation and friction.
Kim Fellowes, from North-East-based solicitors Dickinson Dees, sits on the National Committee of Resolution, a 5,000-strong association of family lawyers committed to the non-confrontational resolution of marital and domestic disputes.
She believes the commission’s ability to take maintenance payments without prior approval from a court could prove extremely controversial. She says: “For fathers, this means the safety net of the court has been removed. Someone might not agree that they have been sent to prison for a criminal offence, but at least they know they have been tried before a court.
The difference here is that there is no court scrutiny.
“And if the father believes he is being unfairly pursued or harassed, that could mean a severe backlash for the mother as she will get the blame. The risk is that even a separation that was previously fairly amicable could become strained.”
One of the most worrying aspects, according to Miss Fellowes, is that the powers are being afforded to the successor of an organisation like the CSA – which has a well-documented history of making mistakes. One report compiled during the agency’s early days found errors in 86 per cent of cases.
Improvements were promised. But a fresh report carried out by the National Audit Office in 2006 revealed a one-in-five chance that payments were inaccurate. Miss Fellowes and others believe the powers included in the bill are so momentous that they may even breach human rights regulations. She predicts strenuous legal challenges once the powers begin to be applied, possibly in the autumn.
Read the full piece here.