A single parent failed by the law: Lois Robb took on her daughter's father in the courts and won - but maintenance orders can be ignored

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF THE father of my daughter paid maintenance, my life would change overnight. As a single mother, I feel as though I have fought long and hard against the odds to support my daughter. I found a job, with difficulty, which I love, but as I struggle with child care, the bills, the mortgage, I know that were I to throw it all up and live off state benefits I would be far better off.

I am the first to welcome the Government's aim of making fathers face up to their responsibilities, but if only it was motivated by a wish to help single mothers and not a cost-cutting exercise. I must be one of thousands of women owed maintenance by men who wilfully ignore the orders to pay.

John (not his real name), my child's father, has consistently ignored court orders to make a financial contribution to his child's welfare. The courts over the last two and a half years have been unsuccessful in their attempts to get him to accept his financial responsibilities.

I had to give up work in April 1986 to have my child. I received only state assistance; there was no financial help from John. I decided to take him to court in 1988 for maintenance. It was the beginning of an uphill struggle.

I soon discovered that getting an order was one thing, trying to convert it into hard cash quite another. The initial procedural steps took four months and endless attendances at court, most of which were unnecessary and caused by the court's inefficient procedures. When an order was finally made, it amounted to a pitiful pounds 43.25 per month.

In the first two years I did receive regular payments, but in March 1991 John stopped paying altogether. A year later he did make one payment of pounds 100. In between there had been a warrant for his arrest . Since then I have received nothing.

The frustrating, time-consuming procedures seem designed to thwart the single parent. After a while, it appeared to me that the courts were helping John to avoid his responsibilities, and hindering me in my attempts to make him live up to them. They have failed me completely. The system is bureaucratic, unsympathetic and ultimately ineffective.

I was elated when it was announced that there was to be a new government body, the Child Support Agency, whose primary responsibility would be to help to get money out of absent parents. It seemed that at last here was to be a step in the right direction. The reality, however, is that the agency can as yet take on cases only where there is no maintenance order at all. It cannot help me for at least another three years. Until then my only recourse is through the courts.

After receiving nothing for a year, in February of this year, in desperation, I wrote to the court requesting that it make an order for 'attachment of earnings' or 'committal proceedings'. I have heard nothing further from the court and can only assume that my letter has been overlooked. I cannot even be sure that the magistrates actually read the letter. If I do not harass the courts, they tell me nothing.

While the arrears accumulate month by month, my child requires new clothes for school, new shoes and food, and her child-minding fees have to be paid. I sometimes wonder if I would be financially better off receiving state assistance: at least then I wouldn't have to take time off work to pursue the outstanding payments.

The courts tell me they cannot do anything until the father attends court and answers his case. When John did attend court last month (I had not been informed of the date of the hearing), he was allowed to leave without paying any money towards the arrears. Once again the hearing was adjourned. There will be yet another hearing, and who knows he might even attend.

In the meantime, I am left with the strong feeling that, for this government, a father is only feckless when he is a drain on the public purse. I can think of no other area in which the authority of the courts is flouted so flagrantly.

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