Those who have had to fall back on official channels in order to get a reasonable level of child maintenance from an absent parent have often reached rock bottom. They are desperate for help in the complicated and expensive business of raising children, and need the government to deliver quickly, accurately and fairly.
So it is shocking news that an annual report about those responsible for maintenance settlements reveals significant errors and failures.
The National Audit Office has been doing its annual reports for the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (which absorbed the Child Support Agency three years ago), and has said it cannot sign off the accounts fully because of errors in maintenance assessments and unfairness in maintenance arrears.
So what is going wrong?
ErrorsThe problem apparently lies in the IT system. Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today: "Since the statutory child maintenance schemes were introduced, there have been problems with the accurate calculation of maintenance and with the two underlying IT systems, neither of which was capable of properly reporting arrears. The Commission inherited these problems from the Child Support Agency."
AssessmentsMaintenance assessments involve working out what the absent parent is earning, and what their financial responsibility to their children ought to involve. The Commission got things wrong with alarming regulatory, and the auditors estimate £10.2m overpayments and £13.9m underpayments.
Part of the issue is that technical problems have led to a big chunk of cases being dealt with manually - which is not only very expensive, but also runs the risk of errors creeping into calculations.
ArrearsThe arrears have been a long-standing issue. Child Support Agency data also shows that more than 5,000 past and current CSA cases remain over £50,000 in arrears.
In all, the Committee said there was an astonishing £3.78bn that hadn't been paid to main carers by March last year. However, the auditors have said that these figures do not give a true and fair view because of the level of errors.
The Commission also estimates that £0.54bn (14% of the total) of the outstanding balance is likely to be collectable. However, given the level of errors they have no real idea what this figure is. Morse added: "The Commission still has a significant challenge in collecting the arrears that have accumulated since the beginning of the maintenance schemes."
In response to the Commission's finding, Work and Pensions Minister Maria Miller said: "The NAO has again underlined the need for the radical reforms we are bringing forward. The Child Support Agency has been saddled with defective computer systems and impractical policies. We are giving every parent now trapped in the CSA the chance to make their own, family-based, maintenance arrangements. This will allow the new state maintenance service to more effectively chase the irresponsible minority who refuse to support their children."
What does this mean for parents?In the long run, the government is working to clear the mess left by poor systems. This year it will abolish the Commission and transfer its work to the Department of Work and Pensions, where it is hoped the legacy problems will be dealt with.
It's worth taking matters into your own hands if you believe you are not being paid enough or if you think you are paying too much. You should start by appealing the decision, filling out a form and submitting it within a month of first getting a maintenance order.
Once your case has been reviewed, if you still think there is an issue you can take it to tribunal, and after that you can take it to the upper tribunal. The system is designed so you don't need a lawyer, but it will take a great deal of time and energy, and there are no quick decisions in this process.
Not being paidIf you aren't being paid at all it will be up to the agency to chase it for you. It has a number of powers, including sending the bailiffs round, getting a number of court orders including one to have salary paid direct to you or getting all bank accounts frozen or applying to have savings transferred from the parent who owes the money. It can also impose criminal penalties. Unfortunately, in practice this process is long and tortuous, which is no help for the parent left without any financial assistance.
If you have no luck with the official channels, you can get help from the Citizens Advice Bureau or the Consumer Credit Counselling Service. Alternatively, many people find the process too challenging to tackle alone, so will appoint a solicitor. Whether this is worth the outlay will depend on just how much you think you are overpaying or the absent parent is underpaying.