Fathers plan European challenge to child agency: Sue Fieldman looks at claims that the CSA contravenes human rights

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The Independent Online
Agroup of fathers who are aggrieved at their treatment by the Child Support Agency are considering taking their complaints to the European Court of Justice.

They are hoping that other fathers will swell their numbers to help fund a test case. The intention is to chose the best case for their cause. If the case goes ahead, it could cause the Government a serious embarrassment.

One of the fathers, Tom Griffiths, works for a computer company in Northamptonshire, and lives with his second wife and their two children. He pays pounds 80 a month for his nine-year-old son from his previous marriage.

He is awaiting the CSA's assessment but his solicitor, David Eastwood, head of family law at the solicitors Toller, Hales & Collcutt, has warned him that it could be in the region of pounds 400. Anna Griffiths says: 'We will fight a case all the way. We have nothing to lose as the CSA will ruin us anyway.'

The CSA was set up in April to take over from the courts responsibility for setting, reviewing and enforcing child maintenance, using a set formula.

The CSA has already attracted a barrage of criticism. One of the most frequent complaints is that the CSA overrides existing amicable financial agreements.

In some cases the court rubber- stamped a financial settlement for the wife and children. Then a few months later the CSA trebled or quadrupled existing maintenance payments, ignoring the other elements such as a cash lump sum, or transfer of the house, that were part of the settlement.

You cannot challenge a CSA assessment in court. You can ask for a review by another member of the agency. Then there is a right to go to a Child Support Tribunal. That is the end of the road unless there is a point of law at issue.

Mr Eastwood says: 'The Child Support Act has taken away the individual's right to challenge the CSA's decisions through the court. I have no objections to the principle that fathers have to pay a realistic sum and by all means introduce a new system. But interfering with exisiting court settlements with no redress back to the court is just not acceptable.'

Peter Duckworth, a barrister who specialises in matrimonial finance, believes that the workings of the CSA may be in breach of Article Six of the European Convention of Human Rights, which says that, in determining rights and obligations, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

Mr Duckworth says: 'A father has a previous court decision which ordered him to pay pounds 20 a week to the child. The Government through the CSA comes along and railroads that with a ruling, say for pounds 100. The earlier court decison creates a obligation to pay and more importantly the right not to pay more than that rate. To make inroads in that without a hearing is questionable. After the CSA tribunal has disposed of the case, there is no effective appeal from there.'

The formula is one of the elements being considered this week by the Commons Social Security Committee, which is reviewing the operation of the CSA. The committee has received about 900 letters on the subject, and has listened to evidence from pressure groups. Its report may be out before the Budget.

The committee may suggest changing the formula to take into account existing settlements and travel costs. It may return to the CSA issue in the new year.

Meanwhile, on 9 December there will be a private meeting of pressure groups such as the Law Society and a host of children's charities to put the case for reform to Members of Parliament.

(Photograph omitted)

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