Blog: Public views on child support of little surprise



John Fotheringham
John Fotheringham

by John Fotheringham, associate at bto solicitors

Throughout the many reforms of child support which we have seen since 1991 governments of different political colours have claimed that each reform has represented what the public would agree was the fair way of handling child support.

The Nuffield Foundation has just published a British Social Attitude Survey(Child Maintenance – how would the British public calculate what the State should require parents to pay?) of what the public really think about child support.  Its findings may come as a surprise to some policy makers but not to many practitioners.  In fact, it seems that the system which the public think would be fair looks rather like the good old Family Law (Scotland Act) 1985.

The researchers gave a number of vignettes to over 3,000 members of the British public describing separated families with different financial and family circumstances.  The interviewees were then asked how much ought to be paid by the non-resident parent and why.

The public’s views are fully expressed in the research but perhaps the main points are:-

  1. The amounts that the public thinks the law should make the non-resident parent pay are higher than required by the present formula. There are some exceptions to this rule.

  1. The public tend to think that the income and resources of both parents as well as a new partner of the parent with care should be taken into account. This, of course, is replicated in section 1 including section 1 (1) (d) of the 1985 Act but is ignored by the statutory child support system and has been so since 2003.

  1. The responses indicated that the public wished to see a progressive rather than flat rate system for child support. In other words higher earning non-resident parents should not only pay more money – they should pay a higher percentage of their earnings.  The survey was carried out without reference to the present differential system of calculation came into force.  That system attempts to flatten out the percentages paid by higher earning non-resident parents.

  1. One area in which the public thought that the present system is correct is in the question of any distinction which may be made between non-resident parents who (i) were married to the child’s mother, (ii) cohabitated with her or(iii) never had any long term relationship with her. The interviewees’ response was that there should be no distinction between the amounts paid by the non-resident parent in these circumstances.  That is exactly what the present system provides.

  1. Interestingly the public had a view about shared care which is not reflected in the statutory scheme. The general opinion was that the NRP’s maintenance obligation should not be affected just because he has no contact with the child unless that were attributable to the mother’s resistance.  On the other hand the public thought that the non-resident parent should pay more if he were to choose to have no contact with the child despite the mother having encouraged it.  One could see the thinking behind the public’s view but we would have to concede that this would be rather a difficult distinction to administer.

  1. Between 1993 and 2003 there was no reduction in child support maintenance if the child stayed with the father for an average of one night per week. This was changed in 2003 but the public’s view now seems to be that the 1993 system had it right and that there should be no reduction in these circumstances because the parent with care will still have fixed expenses to provide a home for the child.

  1. The research is full and the findings are detailed. The proposals recommended by the public have, I think, little chance of being reflected in any changes to the law because they have generally removed major pillars of the present statutory system which allow this system to be run cheaply.  Nevertheless the public have said, taking their answers broadly across the board, that the system which applied in Scotland under the 1985 Family Law (Scotland) Act was fairer and better that the statutory system which has been imposed on Scots Law for more than 20 years.

  1. It will be interesting to see what the Government chooses to do about the potential reform of child support in the light of what the public has said.

The main news from the survey is the British Public does not think that the present system is fair.  One could wonder about the extent to which this is actually news.