Meeting in Canberra on 30 June 2008
A meeting of the LFA ACT was held at the Hellenic Club,Canberra, on 30 June 2008. The meeting was chaired by the LFAA President, Barry Williams, and was attended by the Vice President LFA ACT, Jim Carter, other members of the LFA, and members of the public.
Guest speaker Matt Miller, General Manager CSA, addressed the meeting on the latest developments in relation to the Child Support Scheme, and answered questions from those present. Other Departmental officers present at the meeting included Stephen Moger and Mary O'Halloran from the Child Support Policy area of the CSA, and Tristan Reed from the Minister's office.
LFAA role and history
Barry Williams summarised the role and activities of the LFAA. There are five men and five women on the LFAA's National Committee. The LFAA is strongly opposed to discrimination against either sex. The LFAA has been at the forefront of policy change in family law for many years. Partly as a result of the LFAA's lobbying activities, a rebuttable presumption of shared parental responsibility has now been incorporated in the Family Law Act, and positive results in relation to shared parenting are starting to appear.
Barry said that when he was left with four young children, there was no help for men. Supporting benefit for women was introduced in 1972. He had set up a tent for several days in the grounds of Parliament House to publicise his case for supporting benefit for single fathers. The LFAA had grown from there.
LFAA and the Child Support Scheme
Barry has travelled 22,000 km over the last couple of years publicising and explaining the new Child Support Scheme.
The new Scheme is fairer than the old, and encourages non-residential parents to have their children for at least one night per week. There are, nevertheless, some concerns about the way in which the Family Tax Benefit scheme operates. The new Scheme treats children of second families equally as children from first families. New income from overtime or a second job can be exempt (up to a level of 30% of total income) for three years to assist re-establishment. The Task Force recommendation for this to apply for a period of five years had been amended to three years by Parliament. The 30% rule had not been considered by the Task Force and is not supported by the Lone Fathers.
Problems with new Scheme
Under the new Scheme, people who cannot see their children will be worse off than before. For example, miners often cannot have their children overnight, and under the present rules their efforts in supporting their children through time spent with the children is not recognised. Such people cannot leave the areas where they work because they would lose their jobs.
There are still many men who cannot see their children under the existing regime. The LFAA met recently with Mr John Pascoe, the Chief Federal Magistrate, and explained the LFAA's concerns about denial of access. Mr Pascoe expressed his sympathy for the LFAA's concerns. The Federal Magistrates' Court does seek to discipline residential parents who flout court orders relating to access, but the Family Court of Australia has in key cases intervened and negated the disciplinary action. Approaching the court system in order to seek the enforcement of court orders can be very expensive. Obtaining transcripts of family law case proceedings can cost thousands of dollars, and many applicants cannot afford it.
The LFAA has examined the system for dealing with denial of access which operates in other countries (e.g. Denmark), and is speaking to parents' groups, including the SPCA, which wish to support the Lone Fathers in its endeavour to overcome access problems. If groups work together, they can be effective in achieving results.
Income from work
A lady present mentioned that once the youngest child reaches eight years of age, the residential parent is expected to work for at least 15 hours per week.
A new idea was to change the rules to stipulate that residential parents should work when the youngest child reaches the age of six. Barry said that the LFA might be able to help in some way in assisting such people to find jobs. Under the new rules on single parent benefits, the incomes for many residential parents may never reach the threshold figure of $18,000 at which they potentially become liable for child payments.
New Government task force
Barry was considering joining a new government task force that was being established in relation to working parents.
Barry questioned whether the 30% rule in re-establishment cases should apply (see below), and said that he was considering recommending the establishment of a high-level group to consider that issue.
Barry warned that many parents will be losing their homes in the period ahead because of economic pressures.
Barry said that LFAA can introduce fathers to a free legal service in Canberra, and that fathers can also make use of "Mackenzie friends" (persons with experience but not qualified lawyers). Magistrates are required to help self-represented litigants.
A CSA DVD was shown describing an explaining the new Scheme.
Barry said that the LFAA has had several discussions with Senator Joe Ludwig, the Minister for Child Support and Centrelink, and Senator Ludwig has indicated that he will be pleased to meet with the Lone Fathers at any time.
Raising concerns with the CSA
Matt Miller (CSA) said that the present meeting was an opportunity for those present to raise concerns about the operation of the Child Support Scheme. From the CSA's point of view the implementation of Stage Three of the new Scheme is something of an anti-climax, in that preparations had been in train for about 18 months. The CSA has not received as many complaints about the new Scheme as had been earlier envisaged. For many people, contact with children is a very significant factor in inter-family relationships.
To build an understanding of the "new world" of the new Scheme is proving difficult, because of its complexity and the fact that every individual case is different. Possible future simplification of the new Scheme is an issue that fathers' groups could give some thought to. Greater "granularity" (i.e., finer tuning) in the Scheme is not necessarily the way to go in the future. In order of importance, the factors affecting people's welfare are emotional, financial, and child support.
Flow of support money
The total flow of child support between parents will be reduced under the new Scheme by a couple of hundred million dollars. But these flows need to be seen in relation to payment of Family Tax Benefit.
Mary O'Halloran talked about the 24% rule and the re-establishment three years rule.
Main changes to the Scheme
Matt Miller said that "self-support" levels for residential parents today was about $43,000, but that that would change to $18,000 for both parents as from tomorrow (1 July 2008), and that this will make for a large change for many clients.
A lady present raised the question of salary sacrifice. Matt Miller said that it had always been the case that salary sacrifice should be added back into child support income, if the issue was raised by one of the partners.
Matt said that it is necessary to establish what the true incomes of both parents are. There is then a question of compliance and enforcement. Four fifths of parents at present do the right thing. one fifth or so of parents are more difficult, and 5-10% of the total need to "have the book thrown at them".
A question was raised about income minimisation, and it was noted that in dealing with the CSA one might be talking to a new consultant each time one contacts them. Matt Miller pointed out that in cases where it is known what type of the job someone is doing, assessments can be based on the industry standard for that job classification. He said that aggrieved parties seeking explanations are free to visit the Woden office and have a face-to-face meeting with staff. It is not necessary to deal with staff only over the phone.
"Cliff face" effect of the new formula
The question was raised of what to do in cases where non-residential parents are endeavouring to reach the figure of 14% of total care but for some reason fail to meet that mark. Matt Miller replied that usually parents aiming at 14% would be well within the 14% bracket anyway, so there should not be a problem. A lady present said that she was in a position of having no fixed abode and was living with friends and relatives, and that reaching the 14% level was going to be very difficult for her. Matt Miller said that the CSA will still trying to work out how to deal with such cases. Mary O'Halloran said that the CSA was having a close look at this issue but was at least a month away from a solution.
The question of back payments of child support was raised. It was stated that the usual time limit on such payments would be three months, but that it could be up to 18 months in Change of Assessment Cases. Matt Miller said it was difficult to see why anyone would object to the latter.
It was suggested that the CSA should be supporting the person who is struggling financially, not the one with a high family income. Matt Miller said that the CSA had not been sufficiently resourced in the past to be able to always do this. There have been investigations in recent times of an additional 6,000 cases which would not have been investigated under the old Scheme.
The issue was raised of ex-partners re-partnering someone who is wealthy. Matt Miller said that the basis for the Scheme was biological parenthood.
The question was raised of why compensation payouts seem to be "below the radar" as far as the CSA is concerned. Mr Miller said that these types of payouts could be considered but it is often difficult to obtain information which can be used in such assessments. It is important for aggrieved parties to make efforts to collect such information for themselves. If this information is brought to the CSA, the CSA will investigate. There appeared to be a general view at the meeting that the CSA needs to be more active in this area.
Other questions raised at the meeting included the following:
The ex-partner has not been paying the child support assessed, and the CSA has been told, but the CSA has claimed incorrectly that the client has not notified them.
A non-residential parent said he has been trying for 10 years to get redress from the CSA for a range of injustices, including paternity fraud, not taking into account cash-in-hand income for the ex-partner, and not allowing for the fact that a daughter is living with a boyfriend - but nothing has happened. An undertaking made by the CSA three years ago to personally follow up has not been honoured. Matt Miller said that he would follow up the matter immediately.
A non-residential parent said that did not have the money to achieve contact. Barry said that he should obtain parenting orders, but mentioned as a qualification that some of the FRC's are believed to be providing inappropriate advice in relation to shared parenting time.
Rose Forace said that there are difficulties if the child whatever reasons claims that it does not want to see the father.
Matt Miller expressed the view that the best approach for most people to follow was to accept that "bygones are bygones", and to move on. There are numerous procedures in the administration of the Scheme for veracity about person's individual situations to be established. If veracity cannot be established, "the CSA's game is over".
Costs and delays
Barry wanted to know why Changes of Assessment take so long to process. Matt Miller referred to the amount of work involved in each assessment and the length of assessments, with documentation running to 40 pages or more.
Matt remarked that, in relation to any impact on children of administrative delays, it is necessary to realise that Family Tax Benefit is much more significant than child support in nearly all such cases ? it could be as much as $13,000 versus $30 per annum.
The CSA suggested that aggrieved persons at the meeting should approach the CSA with their complaints via Barry Williams, and they will be assisted. The CSA has direct visibility into the ATO database on income.
Barry said that the LFAA will pursue the cases for people with genuine grievances.
Matt Miller said that he appreciated the significance of denial of access and the failure of courts to enforce their own orders. He thought that the resolution of this issue could be two years away. Barry said that the LFAA would be lobbying hard for major improvements in this area in the near future.
J B Carter
Vice President LFA ACT
1 July 2008