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Child Support Agency failed to ensure a parent got £10,000 in child support arrears

Organisations we investigated: Child Support Agency and Independent Case Examiner

Date investigation closed: 19 August 2019

The complaint

Complainant D complained that the Child Support Agency (CSA) did not do enough to ensure the proceeds from the sale of Person G’s property were secured to pay off child support arrears and had not accepted its failings.

Complainant D also complained that the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) carried out a flawed investigation into her concerns. The ICE is the second-tier complaint handler for the CSA and other government organisations that deal with benefits, work and financial support.

Complainant D told us that as a result of the CSA’s failings, Person G was able to sell a property without paying approximately £10,000 in arrears of child support.

What we found

CSA did not comply with the conditions of the Order for Sale. CSA sought a valuation of the property after the deadline set by the court. There was no reason for CSA to have acted outside the conditions of the Order for Sale. CSA should have done more to proceed with the Order for Sale within the deadlines set by the court, given Person G’s history of non-payment of child support.

CSA took no action to secure possession of the property by the deadline set in the Order for Sale and made no record of any decisions taken about why it did not take action to do so.

CSA did not tell Person G’s solicitors about the Order for Sale. This would have placed an onus on the solicitors to abide by the terms of the Order for Sale. CSA could also have considered requesting an undertaking (a legally binding promise) from the solicitors to settle the arrears of child support through the sale of the property. CSA’s failures effectively enabled the sale of the property in breach of the Order for Sale.

Even following the sale of the property, we found CSA did not do enough to ensure Person G settled the debt owed. CSA made no record of the reasons why it did not pursue other options, such as a freezing order on the monies received from the sale of the property to prevent them being disposed of.

We did not find any failings in relation to the Independent Case Examiner’s handling of the complaint.

Background

Complainant D had a child with Person G. Their relationship broke down and Person G was responsible for paying child support to Complainant D, which they did not pay. Complainant D had a long-standing child maintenance case with CSA. For the purposes of child support, Person G was classed as a Non-Resident Parent (NRP).

CSA can apply to the court for a charging order on an NRP’s property in relation to child support arrears owed to a parent with care of a child or children. A charging order places a restriction on the sale of the property. In this case, any sale of the property by the NRP could not proceed without first notifying CSA. To force the sale of the property, CSA can apply for an Order for Sale.

An Order for Sale effectively gives CSA the ability to sell a property to settle the debt owed. If the owner sells the property themselves, this would breach the Order for Sale. However, if a sale took place despite the Order for Sale, the sale would be binding and could not be reversed.

Person G bought the property in question with another person. Over a four-year period, CSA obtained four charging orders on the property. These said CSA should be notified before any sale of the property could take place.

CSA was then granted an Order for Sale against the property. One condition of the Order was that a valuation be undertaken within 28 days. If the debt was not paid by Person G within three months, the Order for Sale said Person G should deliver possession of the property to CSA. CSA sought a valuation two months after the deadline set in the Order for Sale and five days after the deadline set for Person G to vacate the property.

One month after the deadline to secure possession of the property, an estate agent conducted an external valuation and delivered the report to CSA. The estate agent told CSA it had previously undertaken a valuation of the property for Person G. The estate agent told CSA the property was sold subject to contract with another estate agent.

In accordance with the restriction on the property by the original charging order, Person G’s solicitors informed CSA about the forthcoming sale of the property. CSA informed them of the debt owed but did not tell them about the Order for Sale. Person G’s solicitors said they would take instruction from their client (Person G).

The property was then sold outside the terms of the Order for Sale.

Complainant D complained to CSA and subsequently to the ICE as the second‑tier complaint handler. Complainant D was dissatisfied by the responses and brought her complaint to us.

Putting it right

CSA should have secured the child support arrears owed to Complainant D through the Order for Sale. Not doing so left Complainant D without the money they were owed. CSA’s handling of the complaint caused Complainant D distress, inconvenience and frustration. To put this right, we recommended the CSA:

  • Apologise to D for the impact of its failings
  • Pay D £10,018.27 in compensation for the child support arrears they would have received but for the failings by CSA, plus interest
  • Pay D £2,000 for the inconvenience, distress and frustration caused by the CSA’s handling of the complaint
  • Review the learning from the case, including relevant policy and procedures when pursuing an Order for Sale where there is a history of non-payment of debt by an NRP.

CSA has fully complied with our recommendations.

This case summary is featured in the Ombudsman's Casework Report 2019.