Child maintenance

Withholding child maintenance or making payments unreliably is a common form of economic abuse that takes place after a relationship has ended.

It is a tool for coercive control that can have a significant effect on victim-survivors. It can affect their ability to provide for their children and build economic safety after leaving an abuser. 

We believe that urgent changes to the child maintenance system are needed so it better protects victim-survivors from abusers and does not facilitate abuse.  

“Even after we separated, he said that if I didn’t do his washing and cooking, he wouldn’t pay any child maintenance.”

Policy context

Controlling or coercive behaviour (CCB)

Abuse that takes place post-separation has been recognised in law and made criminal through changes to the controlling or coercive behaviour legislation in England and Wales. The statutory guidance on this law gives several examples of abusive behaviour that relate specifically to child maintenance, including: 

  • non-payment of child maintenance 
  • paying maintenance irregularly 
  • insisting payments will only be made if access is given to the children.    

Independent review into the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) response to domestic abuse

By engaging with survivors and sharing their experiences, SEA has influenced vital reforms to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). Our input to the independent review of the CMS response domestic abuse highlighted:  

  • the ways in which the service can close down opportunities for abuse 
  • how the service can more effectively enforce payment of child maintenance.  

Following the review, the Government supported the following changes that would assist survivors using the service: 

  • Increased access to the ‘Collect and Pay’ service in cases of domestic abuse through new legislation. This will mean victim-survivors can access child maintenance payments without compromising their safety by being in direct contact with the abuser.  
  • Increased scope for the CMS to support the prosecution of abusers for financial coercion under the controlling or coercive behaviour legislation. 

Two new laws

SEA worked with Gingerbread, the charity that supports single parent families, to try and raise awareness of and influence two laws that passed through Parliament in 2023.  

  • Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act: This law includes the legal change that means survivors can more easily access Collect and Pay. Read the last briefing we submitted as this passed through Parliament.
  • Child Support (Enforcement) Act: This law strengthens the enforcement of child maintenance payment by making it easier for the CMS to take certain more stringent enforcement actions for non-payment. These actions may include driving disqualifications and passport suspensions. While we welcome this change, we feel that there is much more the CMS can do to use its existing powers of enforcement.  Read the last briefing we submitted as this passed through Parliament.

Our key policy calls  

Together with Gingerbread, SEA is calling for the following further changes to ensure the child maintenance system better supports victim-survivors of economic abuse.

1. All victim-survivors of domestic abuse should be exempt from the 4% charge for using the ‘collect and pay’ service.

For many survivors, it is too dangerous to arrange payments with the other parent directly. This charge penalises them for using their only safe option for receiving payment.

We are disappointed that the 4% charge imposed on the resident parent when using the Collect and Pay method has not been removed under the new Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act. We urge the Government to remove this unfair charge as a follow up to the new legislation. 

2. The Government should make minimum payments to survivors of domestic abuse where the other parent refuses to pay.

Non-payment of child maintenance can send survivors of domestic abuse into poverty. The Government should make minimum payments to survivors if the other parent refuses to pay. These payments can be recovered through enforcement action.  

3. All Child Maintenance Service staff should receive expert training in supporting applicants who are survivors of domestic abuse.

It is vital that staff understand the risks that survivors are facing and provide a safe response.  

Other policy work