Solicitors want changes to Child Support Agency

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The Independent Online
THE LAW SOCIETY has called for the role of assessing child maintenance to be removed from the Government's new Child Support Agency and returned to the courts, following a public outcry that the agency was operating unfairly, inflexibly and not in the interests of the child.

The society, which represents solicitors who have been inundated with inquiries from anxious clients, reinforces complaints from absent fathers, new wives and ex-wives who claim they have been unfairly hit by the agency since it was set up in April.

In evidence to the all-party Social Security Select Committee, which is holding an inquiry into the operation of the agency, the society makes recommendations for changing the formula in the short term to bring immediate relief to absent parents - mainly fathers - who are suffering severe hardship because of the new demands.

The society reminds MPs that before the agency was established, it had warned that problems would arise, because the formula used for assessing how much maintenance the absent parent would pay is too rigid.

Eileen Pembridge, chairwoman of the society's family law committee, said it was 'inevitable' that the role of assessing maintenance would have to return to the courts because the legislation was flawed. 'It owes more to dogma than putting children first.'

The society cited a case where a policeman could lose his job and his house after the agency ordered him to pay six times more maintenance than a court agreed he should pay after he divorced in 1990. PC Steve Harrald, 38, of Widnes, Cheshire, had been paying pounds 80 a month set by a court for his two children. The agency demanded he pay pounds 500 a month - half his income.

Mr Harrald says he cannot afford to pay and faces bankruptcy. Under the police disciplinary code that would lead to him losing his job and the house that goes with it. He is also supporting his second wife, Shirley, and her 10-year-old daughter because her ex-husband pays no maintenance. The agency cannot deal with her case until 1996. 'It's just a shambles,' he said.

In another case cited by the society, David Caswell, 28, from Berkshire, says that since separating from his wife, Karen, he has met the pounds 400 monthly mortgage payment on their former home and pounds 218 a month maintenance for their child out of his pounds 1,000-a-month salary. Mrs Caswell applied for a new assessment, which took no account of the mortgage and assessed he should pay pounds 390 maintenance a month. Now the agency has instructed Mr Caswell to stop paying the pounds 325 a month mortgage interest - he continues to pay the pounds 75 endowment policy - and pay his wife pounds 92 a week. Mrs Caswell must now ask the DSS to pay the mortgage, to avoid repossession.