New child support body will continue old failures, lawyers warn

The CSA and its successor are under fire for failing to chase payments properly and pay compensation
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The Child Support Agency (CSA) has ignored a government watchdog's orders to compensate parents let down by its "inadequacy and negligence". The agency has exploited a legal loophole to avoid reimbursing families left without financial support, in some cases for more than a decade, after it failed to chase payments properly.

As the CSA was replaced by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) yesterday, MPs and family law experts said they feared the new body would exploit the same loophole. Lawyers acting for people let down by the CSA say that it is bound only by a "verbal agreement" to accept compensation recommendations by its watchdog, the Independent Case Examiner (ICE).

The much-trailed launch of the new body has done little to silence critics who expressed doubts that the problems of the CSA would cease under the CMEC, where staff, including the head, Stephen Geraghty, remain the same.

Between October 2007 and February 2008 the CSA failed to act promptly in 51 cases where its watchdog said it should pay compensation. Of these, 47 cases were eventually given consolatory payments – for as little as £50 – and four were not compensated at all.

The agency said that it pays several millions of pounds in compensation annually but family law experts believe the compensation paid is only the "tip of the iceberg".

Elaine Kennedy, 38, appealed to the CSA in 1998 when she stopped getting maintenance payments from the father of her children, Thomas and Laura, now aged 15 and 12. The CSA failed to intervene – despite having the power to – and arrears payments of £12,000 mounted up.

She complained to the ICE, who recommended that the CSA compensate her. The CSA chose not to; it told her there was no one else she could complain to and the case was closed. She sought legal advice and has since been given an out-of-court settlement.

"It was impossible. The kids were younger then and I couldn't give them the normal things that others had. I feel they really missed out and you can't get those years back," she said. "I don't understand why I had to go through a solicitor to get that payment. Who is the CSA accountable to?"

The Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokeswoman, Jenny Willott, said: "The CSA's standards of delivery are lower than almost every other public agency and if there's no external body able to enforce remedies this might explain why the standard is so poor. When it's clear the agency is at fault and has caused someone financial damage, they should compensate them."

Kim Fellowes, of the family law association Resolution, said: "It is difficult to think of other organisations that could absolve their responsibility in the manner the CSA is able to do. Quite often, the lost maintenance payments are tens of thousands of pounds and the reasons they haven't been recovered are down to its inadequacy and negligence."

Stephen Lawson, of Forshaws Davies Ridgeway Solicitors, said it was impossible to estimate how many families have been inadequately compensated. "The CSA is accountable to nobody and I've had cases where they have done nothing for 12 years but still haven't paid proper compensation."

A CSA spokesman said: "If the agency mishandles a case, then it makes a payment in recognition of that failing but this is not to replace the maintenance owed. The maintenance is the responsibility of the non-resident parent, and we will work to collect that from them."