Equality For All: Why the latest inquiry by WEC is important for Divorcing Parents

In any divorce, the ultimate goal is to achieve a fair and amicable split. Although such situations may not be friendly, it’s still our aim to help guide our clients through this difficult time with as little pain as possible, and one topic that always comes up is that of equality.

Everyone wants to be treated the same, and whether it’s ensuring that the children are cared for, or that the financial arrangements are a genuine reflection of the couple’s independent circumstances, equality between the two parties is paramount.

However, despite all the best intentions, many parents still feel that this is not the case when it comes to their children, and this has been the focus of activist groups, MPs and committees alike. In today’s post, we’d like to discuss some recent developments with you, and reflect on what they could mean for you if you’re a divorcing parent.

Mounting debts

We recently brought you a blog post on Conservative MP Suella Fernandes, and her ongoing campaign aimed at re-assessing child arrangements following divorce. However, the many controversial laws within the family justice system have been thrown into the limelight yet again recently for a very different reason.

It’s been discovered that, while a significant and costly backlog of unpaid child maintenance payments has developed, fathers are also afraid to ask for working hours that will help them have a better relationship with their children.

Let’s take the point on child maintenance payments first. According to reports by major media outlets, the UK has a backlog of more than £3.8billion in uncollected child maintenance payments. The figures were released as part of a National Audit Office report, and state that the money is owed by non-resident parents built up over 23 years. The figures also indicate that around 1.2 million people are owed child maintenance.

Following a divorce, both parents are expected to contribute towards a child’s upbringing. If an amount is not agreed upon, a government agency can decide where child maintenance must be paid and how much is owed. In 1993, the Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up to ensure that non-resident parents adhered to such financial arrangements, but it was severely criticized and eventually replaced in 2012 with the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

However, it’s thought that the majority of the backlog in unpaid maintenance was created under the first agency: the CSA. Mistakes were thought to be regular occurrences, where absent parents were not tracked down. Under the new and improved system, parents are assessed against a variety of criteria, and payments generated via a generic formula.

Lower repayments available, but rarely offered

On the face of it, there seems to be some pretty serious neglect both by the non-resident parent regarding their payments, and by the authorities for not enforcing the arrangements following divorce. However, there are plenty of public charities who would disagree, arguing that the main reason for the backlog is the total inability of the parents in question to pay the amount, as it’s way above what they can afford.

One such charity is Families Need Fathers (FNF); the organisation was set up in 1974 to promote shared parenting after separation and divorce. They primarily focus on helping non-resident parents, and over 90% of the people they help are fathers. In their reports, they claim that they receive approximately 25,000 service calls per year through their national helpline, by people in desperate need of support following a divorce.

In their argument for a fairer judicial process, they refer to the recent report by the National Audit Office, which states that while both the CSA and CMA have been permitted to agree lower repayments for parents with low incomes, this will rarely be offered, even when it’s clear the parent cannot afford their payments.

FNF recently submitted a written document to the Women and Equalities Select Committee, regarding their latest Inquiry into Fathers and the Workplace, reiterating this point to demonstrate the struggles that non-resident parents are currently suffering.

Fathers need flexi-time

This brings us around to the second point we made earlier, about the fact that many fathers are scared to ask for flexible working hours in order to be more involved with the care of their children, fearing that it could damage their careers.

This statement comes from Conservative MP Maria Miller, Chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Committee new inquiry, who also added that such requests can apparently lead to employers questioning their workers’ commitment.

The inquiry aims to find out how much support fathers receive at work, and any demand for change, as MPs consider how well fathers feel their current working arrangements help them to fulfil childcare responsibilities, and whether they have the financial support to carry these out.

However, shockingly, research so far has suggested that 44% of dads have lied about family-related responsibilities, over fears they’ll be penalised. This adds more fuel to the fire for charities such as FNF, who also look to the 2017 Modern Families Index for support. This suggested that while family was the highest priority for fathers, half of those interviewed felt their work-life balance was increasingly a source of stress.

Sarah Jackson, Chief Executive Officer of Working Families who constructed the Index, told the select committee that “paternity leave and shared parental leave should be a ‘day one’ right for all fathers”. Currently, not only do you have to be an employee of an organisation, but also have worked there for at least 15 weeks before your baby is due to be able to qualify for two weeks’ paternity leave.

She labelled this a “huge inequality that fathers face in the workplace, right at the start”. Regarding a change in culture with the law, she continued: “What I would be much more interested in talking about is some sort of protected characteristic about having care responsibilities, because that would capture men, women, same-sex couples, adopters, people caring for disabled children, people caring for elderly parents, people caring for terminally ill spouses. There are so many people who are not covered by discrimination law as it currently exists, and we could do so much better.”

It’s clear from the above that there are some serious changes that need to be made to the current system following divorce, before inequalities between households can be rectified. However, with so many disputes in the media regarding divorce law, it can be difficult to know where you stand and what all these debates mean for your own situation.

As your legal experts, we’re always here to help. If you’re currently going through a divorce and you’re worried about the child maintenance payments you could be facing, or how the childcare arrangements could be split, don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can call us on 020 7381 8111, or email us at law@hylton-potts.com.

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