Maintenance across borders

Posted 4 October 2017

Child maintenance

One single parent discusses her struggles in trying to receive child maintenance from a former partner who moved abroad.

My ex-husband stopped all maintenance and child support payments out of the blue on 1 January 2014. Since he lives abroad and is a national of another EU country, yet we divorced in the UK, I approached a lawyer in March to apply for a REMO (Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Order) case to be brought through the authorities in the EU country in which he lives. This is a legal arrangement between countries that is meant to ensure that child support orders made in UK courts can be enforced in partner countries at no additional cost to the applicant, who is often left in dire financial straits as a result of non-payment. I came out of a divorce 6 years ago without the family home (which is abroad) or any capital settlement and had to start from scratch (in financial terms) as a working single mother. The monthly support ordered by the UK court was vitally important to us to help pay for a home and support the children at school and university.

However, in the two and a half years since then, I have spent hundreds of pounds trying to have the case enforced in the partner country and ensure that my children receive their right to support. This is not simply because the process is complicated and time consuming per se, but largely because of a dysfunctional system and, sometimes, professional incompetence.

I was not aware that I had the option to send in the application myself directly to the court where the divorce settlement was reached, rather than spending time trying to find a lawyer with appropriate experience or maybe even a second language. Meanwhile, the court officials who are meant to advise applicants through the REMO process were never available and never contacted me about my case. Most significantly, the REMO unit in London, which is supposed to facilitate the communication between the UK court and the court in the country where the children’s other parent lives, proved endlessly capable of making mistakes, causing delays and misunderstandings. These only came to light because I am bilingual and therefore was able to see the discrepancies between the original and the translated application, when I asked for copies of all correspondence.

These mistakes were not minor details. For example, the Ministry of Justice in the country where my ex-husband lives informed the REMO unit and me that there was simply no record of him ever having lived or worked there. This was mystifying, since we had lived, worked and had children there, and he was still living in the family home.

I asked the REMO unit to send me the application forms they had translated into German. The official translation had the wrong date of birth, social insurance number and name for my ex-husband, so it was no wonder the authorities hadn’t been able to trace him! There is no excuse for factual errors, which do not even require translating. As a professional translator, I spent many hours checking and translating the original entries again, doing the work of a paid official for nothing. Complaints and queries to managers have never been responded to.

I couldn’t afford a lawyer beyond making the initial application. Mistakes and errors continued and I tried to deal with them myself. Although some staff seemed helpful in the beginning, it is now often impossible to get through on the telephone, and when I have managed to do so, I have often been confronted with someone who misspells our names, and even mistakes one country for another. On one occasion, I rang the court in the UK only to find out that they had not received any update for several months from the REMO unit and had assumed that the case was closed, even though I knew that a court in the other country was just about to start proceedings in my case. I rang the REMO unit about this and was assured that the UK court had been informed. When I asked them to give me the dates of correspondence, they admitted that they had not in fact sent anything, although they would “do so today”, apparently.

The contrast between the other country and the UK authorities has been striking. In my experience, the REMO unit is shockingly slow. The authorities in the other country typically turn around correspondence in days, or two weeks at most. If I do not ring the REMO unit to enquire, nothing seems to happen with the documents for months at a time. I think it is likely that the unit is understaffed and overwhelmed, but some delays are completely avoidable. Recently, I received a letter from the REMO unit apologising for the delay in sending me a document dated 17 June from my ex-husband’s country of origin. Yet the document was actually not included with the covering letter. The letter said that if I needed any further assistance I should get in touch. I rang the office repeatedly for days, without getting through. Meanwhile, the family court system dealing with divorces and international maintenance cases is now completely restructured. It was hard enough to get in touch with the original local court. It seems almost impossible to get through to the central court dealing with divorce settlements from across southern England.

I know now that the case went to court in the other country, two and a half years after I filed my claim for unpaid maintenance through the REMO unit. There is still no conclusion to the case. I still have no idea when or whether the several thousands of pounds my children are now owed in child support will be repaid. Court cases may be complex, but I would urge anyone like me who is waiting for months and believes complexity or the other country’s authorities may be to blame to check that things are being handled properly within the UK. I do not have any faith left in the authorities handling international maintenance cases and feel that incompetence and under resourcing are letting children like mine down, and making a mockery of court ordered settlements that are supposed to protect the interests of children during a divorce.

Please join me, and support Gingerbread’s Maintenance matters campaign calling for positive change for children from single parent families.