The Age (Melbourne)
7 March 2008
Parents told to cough up maintenance
By Carol Nader
Legal action taken against parents who refuse to pay child support or aren't paying enough is expected to garner more than $15 million this financial year.
The Child Support Agency told The Age that by the end of January, it had already collected almost $9 million in outstanding child support after taking legal action, and expected to get more than $15 million, exceeding the $13 million secured from litigation in 2006-07.
Trevor Sutton, deputy general manager of the Child Support Agency, said it was a significant increase and largely due to more staff pursuing parents doing the wrong thing. The Howard government increased the number of litigation officers in the agency from 20 to more than 40 in 2005-06.
There have been 339 cases involving legal action so far this financial year, and Mr Sutton expected about 700 cases in court by the end of June. The number is only slightly higher than last year and lower than the 786 cases heard in 2005-06, but Mr Sutton said the outstanding debt collected was higher because the agency was better at targeting parents who had the means to pay.
Litigation is used by the agency only as a last resort, if exhaustive negotiations fail. "We still prefer parents to come to the party prior to that," Mr Sutton said. "If everything else fails then we will resort to seeing if these people can be effectively litigated."
He said there had been a trend in the past few years of people engaging in more sophisticated financial arrangements. Some were minimising their income – sometimes legitimately, but sometimes deliberately for tax purposes and to reduce child support payments.
Mr Sutton said he did not want to see a move to a more punitive system. If a court gave permission to seize a parent's house, usually it would be an investment property rather than the parent's home. It would not be in the child's best interests for their parent to lose their home.
A spokeswoman for Human Services Minister Joe Ludwig said: "The Minister is committed to ensuring that children receive the level of support that they have a right to receive and that these payments are timely and accurate."
Paul Le Moing Ross, a family law specialist at Westminster Lawyers, said because the child support system was complicated, sometimes parents did not know how to get money owed to them.
He welcomed the push to enforce payments. "That means children will be better fed, better clothed, and better educated," Mr Le Moing Ross said.
- The agency took legal action over a $5,000 debt. The father was ordered to pay $100 a week but did not obey so the agency took steps to sell his property. The man made a payment that cleared the debt.
- Negotiations over a $20,000 child support debt broke down. A letter of demand was sent but there was no response. The Child Support Agency went to court but the father did not attend. The court gave the agency permission to sell the man's property. He paid $25,000 to cover the debt and costs.