Fathers exploit CSA legal loophole by denying paternity

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ABSENT FATHERS are snarling up the work of the Child Support Agency by denying paternity - leaving lone mothers with the prospect of a court case and possible DNA test on their children before they can receive maintenance under the Child Support Act.

Sarah Cooke, a mother of two, said yesterday that she had been 'stunned and amazed' when her husband of 16 years had denied he was the father of her children. He had done so, she said, despite his being their father, having registered them at birth, and having paid some maintenance towards his former family.

The framing of the Child Support Act means that the agency can make no presumption of paternity even when parents have been married, said John Stakes, a Leeds solicitor who represents Mrs Cooke. When paternity is denied, the maintenance assessment has to stop, he said. Either the mother or the agency then has to go to court for a paternity declaration with the possibility of a pounds 500 DNA test being needed.

And while the father can then be made liable for the court and test costs as well as for back-dated maintenance, lawyers say the CSA appears reluctant to undertake the cost and delay of a court case unless it is clear the mother will be on benefit for some time.

Mr Stakes said: 'This may prove no more than a delaying tactic on the part of the fathers, but it is an effective one. The Act would become unworkable if absent parents denied paternity to a man.'

He added that, because of the cost and delay of a court case, as well as the trauma of having to tell children why a blood test was needed, there 'is a real possibility that the agency will not pursue many of these cases where paternity is denied, and not merely on grounds of cost alone'. The law should be changed, he said, so that where parents had been married the CSA could presume paternity and it would then be up to the father to challenge that.

The CSA was unable at the weekend to provide figures on how many fathers had denied paternity or how many cases it had taken to court. However, Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, which has been monitoring the Act, said one parent in twenty-five was thought to be denying paternity.

'We've been on to Peter Lilley (the Secretary of State for Social Security) about this for six months without success. Where the parent is on income support they can get legal aid but where a parent is working and there is no legal aid it can cost up to pounds 800 to go to court and most mothers don't have that kind of money. We think the CSA should take these cases as a matter of principle in order to send a clear signal to absent parents that they cannot get away by just denying paternity. If they don't, they will be saying that denying paternity can be a way of avoiding paying maintenance.'

Some lone parents had been told by the agency to 'sort it out yourself' when the father denied paternity, she said.

Mrs Cooke, who works as a secretary and is on Family Credit, said: 'It just didn't occur to me that my ex-husband would deny paternity. It really knocked me for six. I think it's a disgraceful thing to do.' The CSA was due to interview her husband again, she said, armed with birth cer

tificates and other information. But the agency had told her it might, none the less, take a court case and DNA test to establish paternity.

The CSA said it weighed each case individually before deciding whether to go to court. 'To ensure the most effective use of public funds, the agency will not take cases to court where little evidence or information (about paternity) is available. Paternity disputes are a matter for the courts, not

the CSA.'

Agency's first year, page 5