Schoolgirl sues CSA over bid to seize pony

Agency criticised over move to recoup £40,000 maintenance payments
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A schoolgirl is suing the Child Support Agency for attempting to recover over £40,000 in child maintenance payments from her father.

Emma Chapelhow, 13, who lives with her father and stepmother in Nottinghamshire, decided to take legal action against the CSA after bailiffs allegedly threatened to take her pet pony to help meet payments owed to her mother.

"They said that my dad had a debt and they were going to take my pony. It made me angry," Emma said. Her father David, 44, added: "They walked around, looking at bits and bobs and they said 'Oh, we can take your ponies, they're worth something.' At which point I turned up and reminded the bailiff he had no legal right to be there."

Emma is suing under Section 2 of the Child Support Act, which says that CSA officers are responsible for "the welfare of any child likely to be affected by [their decisions]". The family is currently looking into whether she is entitled to legal aid, as they cannot afford to pay a solicitor.

Mr Chapelhow, a roofer, claims the CSA has threatened to seize his property unless he pays between £40,000 and £50,000 to his former partner, Janette Plummer, whom Emma lived with until October 2007. The back-dated payments are based on a supposed discrepancy between Mr Chapelhow's declared income and his lifestyle.

While Mr Chapelhow owns a £450,000 farmhouse, he says it was remortgaged to fight for custody of Emma and that the family in fact lives in a caravan in the garden so the property can be rented out. "The caravan is starting to get a bit grotty – they're not designed to be lived in for donkey's years. I sometimes think about the fact that Emma had a nice bungalow in Brighton with her mum and she came up here to live in a caravan, but she's made it clear that she'd rather be here," he said. "If we hadn't spent the money fighting for Emma we'd be living quite nicely in a nice house, but I'd rather have Emma here. If you take my house off me now the effect that's going to have on her will be massive."

Emma sent her first letter of notice to the CSA six weeks ago and posted additional paperwork on Monday. "I said that it was wrong what they were doing. The idea of what they're meant to be doing is looking after children and they're chucking me out on the street basically," she said.

Michelle Counley, chairwoman of the National Association for Child Support Action, said: "The CSA are pulling really heavy-handed tactics to try and get this money back, which isn't in the interests of the child. This is going to help nobody to take this sort of action, and enforcement is one of our biggest concerns at the moment."

She added that, being male, it was harder for Mr Chapelhow to fight his case with the agency. "He is up against one hell of a mountain to get the CSA to listen to him. There is gender bias – we see it daily," she said.

The CSA said in a statement: "When an independent tribunal rules that a parent owes maintenance arrears we have a legal duty to recover the amount owed while protecting the welfare of any child affected. If reasonable repayment terms are refused we will act fairly to secure the debt. We do not take property belonging to a child or seek the imprisonment or bankruptcy of the child's sole carer."

A spokesman added that, while the CSA couldn't comment on individual cases, it was possible that Mr Chapelhow had misunderstood the agency's proposed action.

Ms Plummer could not be reached for comment.

Emma's case is not the first time a child has taken legal action against the CSA. In 2007, 11-year-old Alexandra Mainwaring filed a £100,000 lawsuit against the agency for failing to collect maintenance from her father.