Parents are able to come to an agreement about children’s living costs and any ‘maintenance’ to be paid if they separate. If this is not possible, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is a government body that can work out how much money should be paid by one parent to the other to help pay for a child/children's living costs. In certain situations the CMS plays an additional role – for example, survivors of domestic abuse may need more support when dealing with maintenance for any children particularly to ensure post separation abuse does not continue.
The CMS has a calculator that works out how much child maintenance should be paid based on the paying parent’s income (up to a maximum of £3,000 gross weekly income). If the paying parent earns more than £3,000 gross per week, the receiving parent can apply to the courts for a top-up of child maintenance. The calculator also takes into account how many nights the children spend with the paying parent and whether the paying parent has any other children that live with them and for whom they are financially responsible. At the end of the calculation, a figure is generated which the paying parent is to pay to the receiving parent per child on either a weekly or a monthly basis.
Payment of child maintenance can be made in one of two ways:
- Via Direct Pay – meaning that the paying parent pays the receiving parent directly. The CMS has introduced measures to protect the paying parent, if a survivor of domestic abuse, to include non-traceable payment methods and to ensure personal information is not shared; or
- Via Collect & Pay – where the CMS will collect the child maintenance from the paying parent, who is subject to a 20% collection fee of the total amount of the child maintenance payable to the CMS on top of the child maintenance, and the CMS will then send the money to the receiving parent. The receiving parent also pays a 4% collection fee of the total amount of the child maintenance, payable to the CMS, for the administrative cost of this service. Prior to the CMS reforms, the CMS would only prevent a paying parent from opting for Direct Pay, and therefore require them to use the Collect & Pay service, if they believed they were “unlikely to pay” and allegations of domestic abuse played little to no part in this decision.
But what happens now when the paying party stops paying or tries to use payment as a means to exert ongoing financial abuse and control? It is really positive that the CMS have made the following changes:
- Survivors of domestic abuse will now: "be given the choice to allow the CMS to collect and make payments on their behalf – without the consent of an abusive ex-partner" – this is the Collect & Pay service. There is still some work to be done. The payer would still be subject to the 20% collection fee, but if the receiving parent has been subjected to domestic abuse, whilst the £20 application fee is waived, they would also still be subject to the 4% collection fee deducted from their payment. The CMS is looking "at ways in which survivors could be exempted from charges in collect and pay arrangements" but we do not seem to be there just yet.
- The CMS staff also now have mandatory training on how to respond to domestic abuse issues and this includes all CMS customers being asked if they have experienced or witnessed domestic abuse. If the CMS think a customer may be in danger of domestic abuse they will signpost them to support and if they consider the customer to be in immediate danger, they will offer advice on contacting the police and may even contact the police on their behalf if the survivor is content for them to do so.
The CMS has taken these steps following the independent review of the CMS response to domestic abuse by Dr Samantha Callan published on 17 January 2023 to put in place measures to protect survivors from direct contact with abusers and to try and identify where a customer is at risk of ongoing domestic abuse. There still needs to be consideration about what would happen if an abusive ex-partner manages to manipulate a situation to use the Collect & Pay service where the paying parent is the survivor of domestic abuse and therefore subject to the 20% collection fee on top of the child maintenance in circumstances in which the survivor would have made payment directly. The changes made so far are however an encouraging step forward.
Survivors of domestic abuse will be given the choice to allow the CMS to collect and make payments on their behalf – without the consent of an abusive ex-partner. This will prevent perpetrators from using child maintenance as a form of ongoing financial abuse and control and mean survivors will not have to have contact with their ex-partner if there is evidence of domestic violence.