Court ruling leaves child maintenance authority ‘emasculated’
November 1, 2012
Absent parents failing to give financial support to their children could escape threatened jail time after a governmental group lost a court case to pursue arrears of child support.
Experienced judges said the lack of authority would mean the regime of enforcing child maintenance payments would be “completely emasculated”.
A ruling from The Court of Appeal showed that “muddled” processes that the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) used in two different cases of absent fathers had gone so far as to affect the human rights of the fathers. The Court of Appeal ordered that urgent steps should be taken to correct the procedures.
The ruling threw out the possibility of jail for the two men and was made, according to Lord Justice Ward, with “considerable reluctance”. The two men were alleged to have owed around £13,000 in unpaid child maintenance.
Ward acknowledged that the ruling was likely to remove the clout from the CMEC but added that these powers were only used as a final attempt to persuade absent parents to pay.
“Without the carrot – or the stick – of commitment (to prison) the chances of recovering arrears of child support are very significantly reduced, if not almost completely emasculated.
“This is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs.”
Ward added that the “muddled” methodology the CMEC used suggested to investigators that absent parents had to prove they were innocent.
Ward, along with two other judges, Lords Justice Patten and Richard, concluded the fathers were not given the chance of a fair hearing, which breached Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The judges concluded:
“The procedures adopted do not comply with the rights to a fair trial and were flawed accordingly.”
One father involved was Kambiz Karoonian, 44 years, from Ormskirk.
In February 2011, magistrates handed Karoonian a suspended jail sentence. He was told to make monthly payments of £1,000 or be imprisoned.
Karoonian, a father of five, has insisted he owes nothing and added that he regularly sees his three daughters from previous relationships, as well as his two sons from his current relationship.
Lord Justice Ward summed up that the letters Karoonian received incorrectly implied he and another parent in a related case had to prove they owed no child maintenance.
The fact that the CMEC had no evidence and had not followed the law relating to both fathers’ income meant that all three judges agreed the fathers had not received a fair hearing.
Richard Gordon QC, barrister for Karoonian, said a number of absent mothers and fathers were being treated in the same way, and having flawed cases brought against them, where their arrears were worked out incorrectly.
The court hearing the Karoonian case was told that the quantity of actual jail terms for parents who didn’t pay rose 800 per cent from 2005 to 2011. Suspended jail term numbers in this period also increased by 449 per cent.
Department for Work and Pensions figures showed that, last year, 30 parents were sent to prison.
Shortly after the judgement was made, a spokesman announced:
“It is extremely disappointing that parents who have flouted their legal responsibility to financially support their children have invoked the Human Rights Act to seek to continue to do so.
“Regrettably, we need every enforcement measure at our disposal to ensure the minority of irresponsible parents pay for their children.
“It is important to stress that this judgement does not question the legality of bringing parents who repeatedly refuse to pay for their children to the attention of magistrates, who can then decide whether to send them to prison. We will of course consider any other implications of this judgement carefully and take the appropriate action.”
Earlier this year, the Department for Work and Pensions took over from the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. The CMEC, in turn, succeeded the Child Support Agency, a setup which faced notoriety from persistent computer problems and its failure to work out correctly the maintenance payments that should be taken from absentee parents.