Both parties may suffer in new child support law: Those who have escaped paying maintenance will be tracked down

THE Child Support Act, which comes into force on 5 April, will mean that absent fathers who have so far escaped paying maintenance for their children will have to do so.

Mothers will not necessarily get more than they would from the state, and in some cases they will be worse off. For example, if a single parent with an 11- year-old child and no mortgage received the full maintenance requirement from the father of pounds 63.60, she would lose Income Support and the consequent benefits - free prescriptions, free school meals and milk. She would also lose access to the social fund, which extends loans for emergencies, such as the need for a new cooker.

From April, the new Child Support Agency will take responsibility for all new claims for child maintenance. All lone parents claiming benefit will have to fill in a child support maintenance application form. Depending on the finances of the absent parent, and disregarding any family he might have inherited from a new partner, the CSA will calculate what he should pay.

'This law is going to be very rigid,' Valerie Kleanthous of solicitors Kingsley Napley, said. 'But the Government's view is that it had to be very rigid to ensure that it worked properly.

'Only parents without existing orders will be able to apply, and we suspect that when mothers realise they will be able to get more money, they will rush to court to get their original orders rescinded. Then they can apply in April.'

From 1996 parents not on benefit who already have arrangements for maintenance but wish to alter them will be able make another claim.

Donna Eastmond, who lives in Plymouth, divorced when her 16-year-old daughter Lisa was only one. She is an air stewardess and earns just more than the income support threshold.

'I have no maintenance and no government support. I wanted a salary so I could be independent, and some years ago I did qualify for Family Credit, but this has progressively been eroded. I know where my ex- husband is, but don't really know if he is earning a decent wage. I could have gone back to court some years ago, but it was all too difficult.

'But, now this law is coming in I will apply, as it is new and seems a less complicated way of getting financial support from Lisa's father.'

If the applicant is not receiving benefit, both parents will be charged pounds 40, and although using the agency may be simple, the formula used for calculating the amount due is not.

According to Ms Kleanthous, the sums previously awarded have been far too low, often around pounds 25 a week for a 10-year-old child. 'They have been at least half the figure paid to foster parents by the Government,' she said. 'The problem with this new law is that there is no room for allowances for individual situations. Before, a judge could use discretion.'

The sums awarded are fixed, dependent on income and after deduction of housing costs.

Ms Kleanthous sees a loophole in that some fathers may choose to buy a larger house with increased mortgage payments. These will reduce his maintenance costs, although he will be paying out an increased amount of money every month.

The parent looking after the children will have to reveal the identity of the absent parent and give relevant information to track him or her down. Only in exceptional cases, where there might be a possibility of violence, will they be allowed to withhold information. If they do not help, benefit will be reduced by 20 per cent for the first six months, and 10 per cent for a further 12 months.

But not every parent wants to turn back the clock.

Margaret McMillan, who lives near Glasgow, has three children: her 10- and 14-year-old are by one father, and the youngest, who is now six, by another. She has made the best of state benefits and does not wish to call on the resources of either husband. 'My first husband was violent. I know he has remarried and has another child, and I do not want his wife or child to suffer,' she said.

Another factor in the maintenance assessment is the amount of access the father has. If he sees his child or children for two nights a week, for example, his payments could be reduced by 2 7 ths, which could worry mothers who have allowed unlimited access in the past.

Sara Robinson, a partner in The Simkins Partnership, said: 'Now legal aid is being withdrawn for people making maintenance applications, what happens if a wealthy husband wants to fight the order? He can appeal and turn up with an expensive lawyer, whereas the wife, not being able to get legal aid, will have no help.

'Also, in my experience, women preferred to have, maybe the odd fiver or a jacket, given to them by the husband, rather than having them pay the money, which will, in turn, be knocked off their benefit.

The Child Support Act will not cover cases where the payer is abroad or step-children, school fees, special educational cases, disabled or blind children, topping-up over the maximum figure or expenses involved with children over 19. These circumstances will still be dealt with through the courts.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Weekly support assessments (Two children, 8 and 11, residing with mother) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Father's gross Support where mother's gross income is: NIL pounds 10,000 pounds 20,000 pounds pounds 10,000 47.38 37.11 21.49 pounds 20,000 85.93 68.44 62.76 pounds 50,000 172.15 163.39 158.76 pounds 75,000 234.65 228.22 224.41 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Assuming: 1) Mother has no housing cost, living in unencumbered former matrimonial home; 2) Father's housing costs pounds 2,500pa when earning pounds 10,000 to pounds 20,000; or pounds 4,000pa when earning pounds 50,000; or pounds 6,000pa at pounds 75,000. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Kingsley Napley -----------------------------------------------------------------

A simple and clearly written guide is available from The National Council for One-Parent Families, 255 Kentish Town Road, London NW5 2LX. Send an A4 sae with 30p of stamps.

(Photograph omitted)