‘It has an effect on every single person in the house’ – Preston’s story

Posted 24 April 2024

Preston has grown up watching her mother’s long-running battle for child maintenance.  Now aged 18, she’s been trying to lighten the load for her mother – and other families in the same situation.

‘Mum opened a case with the CSA (Child Support Agency), when I was just a few weeks old. It’s been going on ever since.’

‘It’s always been a battle for Mum. She’d get letters from the CMS (Child Maintenance Service) that didn’t make any sense, so she’d have to phone and ask what they meant. And then whoever she spoke to wouldn’t know the answer, so they’d pass her on to someone else. I remember her being on the phone for hours, it seemed, every day.

When I was younger, I never wanted to ask if I could go on school trips because we were always conscious of how much money these things cost. Mum always worked the whole time I was in school – and of course that meant we weren’t entitled to free school meals. So it’s been a struggle.

It seemed that every decision that was made [about the amount of maintenance owed] would have to go to a tribunal or a reconsideration. And we’d be awarded a higher amount but then nothing would change. They’d say ‘yes, he needs to pay more’ but then they wouldn’t enforce it. My father would just ignore it or send them a bank statement showing low earnings.’

Joining the judicial review of the Child Maintenance Service

When Preston was 17 years old, she joined a legal case challenging the persistent failure of the Child Maintenance Service to take “proper or effective steps” to recover maintenance payments from absent parents. The claimants were a group of single parents and the children of single parents, who argued that persistent inefficiencies in the system and delays in investigation and enforcement against non-resident parents were causing them “significant and prolonged financial difficulties” and “pushing them into poverty”.

Preston explains why she got involved:

‘Admittedly, it was hard for the CMS to collect the money my father owed. He was self-employed and he didn’t always have a permanent address – so he did evade them in a sense. But the CMS – and the CSA before them – never really used the powers that they had. They could have confiscated his driving license or passport for example. For about a year and a half, they were sending bailiffs to his house every month to collect the money from him. Mum and I could never understand why that stopped – it seemed to be the only thing that was working.

They must have known he was making money. Mum would provide them with evidence that she’d found out herself, to show he must be earning more than he was declaring, but they never seemed to act on it.

It got to the point where Mum was exhausted with it all. When the court case came about, we decided I should take it forward rather than her.

We wanted to make people understand that it’s not just single parents trying to grab money for themselves. It’s an ongoing struggle, and it has an effect on every single person in the house.

Gingerbread’s involvement in the judicial review

Gingerbread also got involved with the case. As ‘third party interveners’ we were able to share our expertise and knowledge. We told the court how we hear day in, day out from single parents who are owed thousands of pounds from their child’s other parent.

Together with Preston and the other claimants, we’d hoped to see significant reform of the CMS as a result of the case. But disappointingly, the judge ruled in favour of the government and agreed with them that the way the system is being operated is lawful.

Preston continues: ‘Although the judicial review failed, it’s highlighted that the current system doesn’t work, and it hasn’t worked for a long time.

It’s had a massive impact on my life.  I‘d get home from school and Mum would be on the phone to the CMS.  I wouldn’t get to talk to her until about 5 or 6 o’clock when they shut. Phone calls could last 3 hours – and to me, it seemed like it was every single day.

It sounds silly, but Mum’s experience with the CMS has made me really anxious, as an adult, about being on the phone. I get nervous even if I have to phone EE about my mobile contract! That feeling of not knowing how long I’m going to be on hold – it gives me an idea of what it must have been like for Mum.’

Preston is now working during her gap year, and hopes to study psychology at university next year. But although she’s looking to the future, their long journey with the CMS isn’t over yet:

‘My Mum’s just drained from it all now – but there’s still a battle to get the arrears. There’s still £25,000 of debt, and we’re worried that the CMS will just write it off now. That would be awful, after such a struggle for so many years.’

What would make a difference?

‘Before the court case, the CMS published a list of improvements that they’d like to make. That would be a step in the right direction, so at the very least I’d like to see them enforce that, and stick with it.  That’s my main hope,’ says Preston.

‘At Gingerbread we hear day in, day out from people who are being let down by the system,’ says Gingerbread Head of Policy and Campaigns Sarah Lambert. ‘Preston and her fellow claimants have made a real stand for many other single parent families with their claim against the CMS. The outcome was obviously disappointing, so we’re now looking at whether the law needs to be changed. It cannot be right that enforcement measures are not pursued and children denied the maintenance they are due.’

We will be carrying out new research later this year on the CMS. Watch this space for more information on how to get involved.